Ken Dowell's Reviews > Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder
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it was amazing

It is one of the foundational precepts of the American narrative that if you work hard you can make a living, raise a family, own a house. If you work harder you can get more. And conversely if you can’t make ends meet, it’s probably your own fault.

Twenty years ago Barbara Ehrenreich wrote what would become a classic book that blew a hole in that myth. In “Nickel and Dimed” she set out to discover first hand whether you could make a go of it by working full time as a house cleaner or a waitress or a Walmart “associate.” She traveled the country taking these jobs then trying to find the cheapest available housing. The subtitle of her book “On (Not) Getting By in America” tells you what she found.

Now in the 2010’s, another journalist author, Jessica Bruder, set out to discover Nomadland. She spent three years living with these “houseless” as opposed to “homeless” folks. For part of the time she lived in a van and took on jobs at the sugar beet harvest and as part of the “Camperforce” at an Amazon warehouse.

The inhabitants of Nomadland are living in vans, campers, trailers. Most of them are far from new. They are not druggies or alcoholics, nor are they societal dropouts. Most are in their 60’s if not older. They were laid low by the 2008 financial crisis, some by divorce settlements, others were bankrupted by medical bills. Some had pretty good careers but were then aged out of the workforce and found the only jobs available to them were minimum wage, seasonal or temporary gigs. The only way they can get by is by eliminating the cost of housing.

One of the people Bruder meets had a 45-year career at McDonalds, an executive who at one time was their director of product development. He and his wife lost all of their savings during the Wall Street crisis, had their home foreclosed and are now living in a 1996 National Seabreeze motorcoach.

Bruder befriends Linda May, a woman in her 60’s, who is living in a tin can of trailer hitched to the back of her car. In the summer she goes to the forests in California where she works as a camp host, doing everything from registering guests to scrubbing out the outhouses. Then for the Christmas season she enrolls in the Amazon Camperforce brigade where she is pushed to work 10 hours a day like a robot on steroids. The pay is minimal, but they get a parking spot.

One of the people she meets says of her fellow vandwellers “After a lifetime of chasing the American dream, they have come to the conclusion it was nothing but a big con.” What is remarkable about the inhabitants of Nomadland is that they don’t spend their time whining and complaining. They are a personable lot, anxious to help each other and looking for ways to improve their ‘homes.’ Many head to the desert in Arizona each year for a gathering called the Rubber Tramp Rendevous. One offers a seminar demonstrating how he tripped out his Prius as a home on wheels.

But in the end, as Bruder says, “Wages and housing costs have diverged so dramatically that, for a growing number of Americans, the dream of a middle-class life has gone from difficult to impossible.” Pretty hard to take a look at the future for these folks.
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Reading Progress

January 22, 2018 – Started Reading
January 22, 2018 – Shelved
January 29, 2018 – Finished Reading

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