Nomadland by Jessica Bruder

Earlier this year, I saw Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, the award-winning film based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book of the same name. When viewed as a piece of art in its own right, the film is excellent – a powerful yet intimate tapestry of stories, an evocative portrait of a new kind of travelling community, largely born from the fallout of America’s economic crisis in 2008. The cinematography, in particular, is stunning, giving the movie a wonderful poetic feel.

That said, not everyone is a fan of the adaptation. Some critics have taken issue with Zhao for her directorial choices, especially the ‘light touch’ depiction of the appalling working conditions many nomads have to endure to finance their fragile existences. While I don’t agree with these criticisms of Zhao – the film is a drama, not a documentary, and Zhao has every right to craft the type of story she wants to tell rather than conveying everything in Bruder’s book – the articles left me sufficiently curious about the underlying issues to seek out the original text.

First published in 2017, Nomadland – which is subtitled Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century is the result of three years of fully-immersive investigative reporting on the part of Bruder, an award-winning journalist whose work focuses on subcultures and the darker aspects of America’s economy.

In her forward to the book, Bruder outlines the developments that have led to the emergence of a new way of living for many individuals struggling to make ends meet. As a consequence of the economic collapse and associated foreclosures, many Americans – typically seniors ranging from their mid-fifties to early eighties – could no longer afford to maintain a traditional bricks-and-mortar house and pay the essential bills. A new existence began to emerge as these people swapped their houses or apartments for camper vans, recreational vehicles (RVs), old buses and the like, taking to road in search of short-term work and a less burdensome life.

There have always been itinerants, drifters, hobos, restless souls. But now, in the third millennium, a new kind of wandering tribe are emerging. People who never imagined being nomads are hitting the road. They’re giving up traditional houses and apartments to live in what some call “wheel estate” – vans, secondhand RVs, school buses, pick up campers, travel trailers, and plain old sedans. They are driving away from the impossible choices that face what used to be the middle class. Decisions like:

Would you rather have food or dental work? Pay your mortgage or your electric bill? Make a car payment or buy medicine? Cover rent or student loans? Purchase warm clothes or gas for your commute? (Foreword)

Seniors like Linda May, a sixty-four-year-old grandmother and former cocktail waitress, and seventy-two-year-old Charlene Swankie (aka ‘Swankie Wheels’) are part of this new tribe, the ‘nomads’ of the book’s title who also feature in Zhao’s film. The nomads often refer to themselves as ‘houseless’ rather than ‘homeless’ – the latter term still attracts a kind of social stigma that feels alien or inappropriate to what the travellers are looking to achieve. Moreover, with an RV or equivalent, they have both shelter and transportation – a different type of home that also serves as a gateway to freedom from the ‘traditional’ social contract of the American Dream.

 “At one time there was a social contract that if you played by the rules (went to school, got a job, and worked hard) everything would be fine,” he told readers. “That’s no longer true today. You can do everything right, just the way society wants you to do it, and still end up broke, alone, and homeless.” By moving into vans and other vehicles, he suggested, people could become conscientious objectors to the system that had failed them. They could be reborn into lives of freedom and adventure. (p. 74)

This air of disillusionment is very prevalent in Bruder’s book, a sense that a fundamental aspect of our society is broken if people are effectively being forced to trade their biggest expense – a bricks-and-mortar house – for a life on wheels. Naturally, this is all the more worrying when the individuals most likely to be affected range from their mid-fifties to early-eighties, a stage of life when people should be able to enjoy their retirement.

To earn enough money for food, fuel and basic sustenance, the nomads pick up short-term seasonal jobs in various low-wage sectors – often spending the summers working as camp guides, the autumns harvesting sugar beets and the winters working for a certain online retailer (‘X’), particularly in the run-up to Christmas. Many of these organisations have cottoned on to the benefits of employing seasonal, itinerant workers in this age bracket – some might say they have pushed this to the point of exploitation, especially given some of eye-opening accounts we see in Bruder’s book.

Employers like ‘X’ – who run a dedicated, branded recruitment and employees programme for seasonal workers – view the mature nomads as a lucrative, low-cost labour pool. In effect, seniors are a safe bet for these organisations. They are reliable and dependable. They show up when required and work hard when they get there. Moreover, the workers are temporary and disposable, negating the need for employers to make pensions contributions, performance-based wage increases or concessions to unions. For these organisations, they represent the ideal solution: low-cost and low-risk.

For the nomads, however, working in this way can be physically and mentally gruelling – and, in some instances, bordering on the inhumane. During one winter stint at X’s warehouse, Linda May suffers a painful repetitive strain injury to her wrist after using a heavy barcode scanner on a continual basis; the impact is so debilitating that she is forced to skip the following season for fear of aggravating the injury. Other workers report walking 15-18 miles per day during warehouse shifts, using muscles they never knew they had. Days off are often spent recovering from the physical toll of the job, sleeping or simply lying in bed to rest the feet as much as possible.

Workers also said they were pressured to meet ever greater production targets, a strategy colloquially known as “management by stress”. ‘X’ monitors productivity in real time, analyzing data from networked scanner guns that employees use as they move and sort merchandise. Laura Graham, […] who worked as a picker in the Coffeyville, Kansas, warehouse, told me each time she scanned a product, a countdown began on her screen. It indicated how many seconds she had to reach the next item, as if she’d graduated to the next level in a video game. Her progress toward hourly goals was also tracked. (p. 99)

In their recruitment and orientation material for the programme, company ‘X’ do acknowledge that workers need to be physically fit to make their time at the warehouse a ‘success’. However, the realities of the working conditions are far from transparent. The fact that the warehouses include wall-mounted dispensers containing generic painkillers is an indication of the organisation’s perception of acceptable working conditions. If the work isn’t expected to cross the pain threshold, why the need for these tablet dispensers?

There are potential hazards in other nomad-friendly roles, too – from cracked ribs sustained during stints as a camp-ground host to being hit by sugar beets as they barrel off the production line in the mechanised cleaning process.

Nevertheless, despite these undeniable downsides, there are many positives to the nomadic way of life – not least the sense of camaraderie that is clearly evident amongst the members of this community. New friendships are made as individuals bond over a shared frustration with the system and a desire for freedom and solitude. There are annual meet-ups at conventions such as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, where travellers hook up with old friends and build new connections. The blend of humanity, liberty and compassion that Zhao captures so elegantly in her film is very much present in Bruder’s book. In both formats, it’s the personal stories that really count, the lived experiences which speak from the heart. 

I’m glad I decided to read Bruder’s book as it paints a more nuanced picture of the situation than the version portrayed in the film. It’s bleaker, grittier and more revealing – both about the underlying issues that have prompted this societal change and the realities of the lifestyle itself, be they positive or negative. For some of these nomads, there is a constant oscillation between fear and joy, especially when thinking about what the future may hold.

“Where do people go when they become too old to camp or live in a van?” Bruder asks at one point. Sadly, there’s no easy answer to that, pointing to one of the many vital questions this excellent book raises.

Highly recommending reading; I found it remarkably eye-opening as a follow-up to the film.

Nomadland is published by Swift Press; personal copy.

52 thoughts on “Nomadland by Jessica Bruder

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Normally, I would suggest that people read the book first, but in this instance it might be best to do it the other way around (or at least see the film and then decide if you want to dive into the book as a follow up). The two versions are somewhat different in style and intention, I think, as Zhao’s film is a fictional piece rather than a documentary. In other words, both are excellent in their own individual ways!

      Reply
      1. Liz

        Thanks so much Jacqui. I usually do book first but can see how this is one of the exceptions. Always good to have something new to watch!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Very, welcome, Liz. I think it’s the kind of film that more than stands up to being viewed in its own right, almost separately from the book (if that makes sense). Let me know what you think of it, I’d be interested to hear!

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’ve been wondering about that too. There’s probably a follow-up piece in that somewhere, should Bruder or another journalist be so inclined…

      Reply
  1. madamebibilophile

    Fascinating review Jacqui. I’ve not seen the film yet although I do want to, Frances McDormand is so watchable. To me the situation sounds terrible, the wall dispensers of painkillers are appalling and I would worry so much about ageing in that situation, especially without a national health service. But I can see that’s my outsiders view and the nomads can find real positives too. I don’t read much NF but I’ll add this to the list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Frances McDormand is amazing in the role, which isn’t based on one individual’s experiences, more a composite / imagining on the part of Zhao and McDormand. (I honestly can’t imagine anyone else playing that role with such sensitivity and humanity, so McDormand knew what she was doing when she optioned the film rights to the book following its publication.)

      The awful thing about the wall dispensers of painkillers is that their existence is kind of presented to the workers as a benefit, implying that there’s no need for them to go out and get their own tablets as they’re readily accessible on site. It’s pretty dreadful, really…

      But, as you say, there are upsides to this lifestyle for the nomads, and Bruder captures these very eloquently in her book. So, overall, the book does give a broader view of their existence, both positive and negative.

      Reply
  2. Daphna Kedmi

    Thank you for your review Jacqui. I have seen the film which was excellent (is there any performance by Frances McDormand that is less than excellent?), and I was wondering of I should “spoil” it by reading the book. Your review clinched it for me. It sounds as if the book has much to offer, and I have added it to my TBR list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed the film as it’s a beautiful piece of work, full of compassion and humanity. And yes, the book is well worth reading as a follow-up. There’s so much in it that isn’t covered in the film, particularly around the realities of the working conditions and implications for medium-term health.

      Reply
  3. Caroline

    I’m so glad you reviewed this. I’ve been tempted to read this as I haven’t seen the film yet but was wondering if I might not just wait. It sounds like it offers more so I might give it a go before watching. I’d mostly watch it for Frances McDormand.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Frances McDormand had already optioned the film rights to Burder’s book by the time Chloe Zhao came on board. (In fact, I think she asked Zhao to direct it after being impressed with her earlier film, The Rider.) So, no wonder they worked together so well on the film adaptation!

      Reply
  4. Cathy746books

    I really enjoyed the film and thought it was shot really beautifully. It sounds like the book would be well worth a read to fill in some of the blanks about the nature of the lifestyle.

    Reply
  5. heavenali

    It is interesting to hear that the book and the film differ a bit. I had really wanted to see the film, but not been to cinemas etc for a long time. Such a fascinating though maybe depressing way of life, also a sobering look at the reasons that drive people live like this. Great review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. I think the film is still streaming on Disney+ (possibly with the option of a free trial, if you just want to sign-up for a short time). It’s well worth seeing if you can…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Liz. It’s a very well-researched book; and yet, it never feels dry or overly preachy. It could so easily have been a polemic, but the author handles it with real compassion and humanity.

      Reply
  6. Emma

    I’ve read (and reviewed) the book first and was so angry about their working conditions at the warehouse that I decided to boycott this Voldemort company. The cynicism of the painkiller dispensers and the like still riles me up. It’s despicable.

    I’ve seen the film too and while I can understand the esthetic choice of focusing on the people, I regret that the social criticism side of the book was absent in the film. After all, it’s an important part of the book.
    I found very moving to see the people from the book play their own character in the film.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, very moving to see so many of the real-life nomads playing their own roles on screen. I really liked that element of the film as it contributed to the sense of authenticity, particularly around the atmosphere and mood of their way of life.

      I can totally understand your response to the book (the details about working conditions are shocking) and your regrets about the lower focus on the social criticism in the film, but I guess that Zhao (and McDormand as producer) wanted to make a different kind of movie. That’s an active directorial/creative choice, I think, rather than trying to replicate the book (or doing a ‘Ken Loach’ with it). I also really liked the approach / style that Bruder adopted in the book. It would have been quite tempting to portray certain aspects of this account in an impassioned way, but I think she does very well to convey everything with compassion and humanity. By avoiding any sense of the polemic, she allows the reader to come to their own conclusions about these issues (including all the emotions this generates).

      I wasn’t aware that you had reviewed it, Emma, so thanks for mentioning it. I’ll head over to yours later to take a look. :)

      Reply
      1. Emma

        I wonder if they’d have found financing for the film if they hadn’t removed the social aspects because let’s face it, it’s a dreadful image for A.
        For Fern, it’s a life choice. In the book, it’s not so obvious. People seem to claim it is their choice to retain some dignity. Like the word houseless instead of homeless.

        PS: I found the details about how to improve your RV and park inconspicuously on the streets absolutely fascinating.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, that’s an interesting point about the financing. I suspect it would have been much harder for them to raise the necessary investment had they gone for more of a documentary approach. And yes, for Fern it does seem to be a lifestyle choice, for the most part at least. I suspect for some it’s quite complex, a little like the ongoing oscillation between joy and fear – a desire for the freedom and camaraderie of nomad life (the upsides) vs the insecurity and hardship of existing day-to-day (the downsides).

          PS I also found those details about preparing the RV very interesting, especially when Bruder decided to go ‘nomad’ herself!

          Reply
  7. gertloveday

    I’ve been wanting to see Nomadland for some time but didn’t realise there was a very solid work of non-fiction behind it. Sounds very enlightening about aspects of U S society not usually brought to light.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would thoroughly recommend both formats as they’re two different (but related) entities – the film for its poetry, humanity and cinematography, and the book for its deep dive into the social issues. I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on either!

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Really interesting review, Jacqui, and I appreciate your thoughts on the book vs the film. I had seen the mixed comments about the latter, and although the whole subject is fascinating it does sound as if the film glosses over some of the harder aspects. But then, I tend to always to be of the opinion that the book is better! I can’t imagine this is a lifestyle I’d choose to adopt, although the lack of ties can be sometimes quite appealing….

    Reply
    1. buriedinprint

      Immediately your book collection would be at high risk, K! LOL

      But now I’m curious, not having seen the film or read the book, is there any sense that any one of these people does actually choose this life? I had the impression that it was a matter of survival? (I’ve heard a single interview, via The Treatment podcast, with the director, but it was mostly about auteur decisions….love his interviews though.)

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        That’s a very good question…I think there’s maybe one person in the book who seems to be going down this route as a lifestyle choice (rather than a necessity), although it’s so difficult to tell. I’m sure there are some people who see the nomad existence as being quite liberating in certain respects – fewer financial ties, the flexibility to move around etc. etc. — the practicalities are much harder than they might think. The film conveys more of a feeling of it being an active lifestyle choice for some, although it’s rarely black and white. So, for Fern (the fictional character in Zhao’s feeling), financial constraints were the initial drivers in her adoption of the nomad lifestyle. However, at one point, she stops travelling and moves in with a relative (her sister IIRC), only to discover that she feels too constrained by the ‘traditional’ family lifestyle. So, she heads off on the road again, trading security + constraints for freedom + uncertainty.

        Reply
        1. buriedinprint

          Hunh. Interesting. Now I’m *doubly* curious. Last year I read a few books about poverty and low-wage/no-wage families in the U.S. (in relationship to an essay I was writing about Betty Smith’s mid-century writing about such families living in New York City in the early 20thC) and I did come across a few people who were pushed into transitory existence in pursuit of a paycheque (often moving between warehouse-style jobs) so I had assumed that was the topic of the film but I’ll look forward to seeing a slightly different slant. I’m also looking forward to Minari among that batch of nominees!

          Reply
          1. JacquiWine Post author

            Yes, it’s interesting to compare the book with the film, and I completely understand why Zhao chose to adopt a different approach. Your work on that Betty Smith piece sounds very interesting. The name is familiar to me, but I’ll have to look her up for a proper reminder of her work!

            As for the other films nominated for this year’s awards, Mirani is terrific, definitely worth making time for. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of the Japanese director Kore-eda (his films are about families, particularly the intergenerational dynamics), but Minari reminded me quite strongly of some of his films.

            Reply
            1. buriedinprint

              I’ve only seen After Life; which others would you recommend? There are a few available through the library here and a couple online too.

              Reply
              1. JacquiWine Post author

                Our Little Sister and I Wish are wonderful. He manages to elicit such beautiful naturalistic performances from his actors, especially children. Shoplifters is probably his best film, although it’s quite a lot darker than his others. (It’s actually my favourite Kore-eda, although probably not the best one to start with.) I loved Afterlife, btw – an excellent film that’s also been turned into a play, currently running at London’s National Theatre!

                Reply
                1. buriedinprint

                  Thank you kindly, I can request “Our Little Sister” (it looks good to me!) and “Shoplifters” (also!) and can stream “the Third Murder” which I’m guessing is more along the lines of the latter but likely still intriguing and thought provoking. (Also “After the Storm” and “Like Father Like Son”.and a couple of others that might be interesting too…turns out I’ve missed a lot LOL) That would make a great play!

                2. JacquiWine Post author

                  Great! Yes, The Third Murder is excellent and definitely at the darker end of the Kore-eda spectrum. I found it very compelling, albeit quite different in tone from his others. Like Father, Like Son is great too, and closer to Our Little Sister in style. I think I need to revisit After the Storm as my memories of it are somewhat hazy, but I do recall it being good. Basically, anything by this director is worth a watch!

    2. JacquiWine Post author

      No, not I lifestyle I would wish to adopt either, but it must be incredibly tough to feel that you have little option but to do so…

      The book vs the film debate *is* and interesting one, and in the majority of cases I would tend to come down on the side of the book. However, in this instance, I think they’re both excellent in their own ways, largely because they are trying to convey different things. The film is a fictional story inspired by some of the individuals and experiences in the book – for example, Fern, the central character played by Frances McDormand, is an invention, not based on any one person in particular, but a fictional focal point for Chloe Zhao’s narrative. (McDormand optioned the film rights in the first place, so she may well have been influential in shaping this approach.) I loved the film for its poetry, cinematography and deep sense of humanity (the latter being a fundamental aspect of Bruder’s book). The book, on the other hand, is non-fiction, so it gives a much more detailed and deeper view of the social challenges surrounding life on the road, together with a flavour of the issues that led to emergence of the nomad lifestyle. So, for me, they are two very different but related entities. Chloe Zhao didn’t set out to make a documentary, so I don’t agree with the criticisms she has received from certain quarters about dialling down certain aspects of the book! :-)

      Reply
  9. Jane

    Thank you for such a thoughtful review Jacqui, I saw the film and like you thought the cinematography absolutely beautiful. I hadn’t read the book but could see that we were watching through a glow – I do think I should read this now though to give a fuller picture, but huge admiration to Chloé Zhao for making this way of life a talking point.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely! I think Zhao and McDormand have done an outstanding job in raising awareness and understanding of the issues surrounding this way of life. A straight documentary of Bruder’s book almost certainly wouldn’t have fostered the sense of emotional investment we’ve seen with the fictional film. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book, should you decide to give it a go!

      Reply
  10. 1streading

    Welcome to the future! I read somewhere recently that we have the technology to reduce the working week to around 15 hours but instead that technology has been used to create more work and monitor those doing it. I suspect the bleakness of the book may be why people feel that ‘humanising’ it via the film may be in danger of ‘romanticising ‘ it but I haven’t seen the film yet so I can’t say. Thanks for such an informative review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome! I’d be fascinated to hear your perspective on the film once you’ve seen it. That’s worrying insight into the areas of focus in developments to the working week – and very much in line with the motives of the organisation in question here. It reminds me a little of that recent Ken Loach film, Sorry We Missed You, where a delivery company’s ability to monitor a driver’s every move just dials up the pressure to unacceptable levels…

      Reply
  11. Julé Cunningham

    A really excellent review and balanced view of the book and film. Though I can understand the concerns about the film not being as hard-hitting as the book, I’m happy that the film happened and perhaps will lead more people to question their unthinking purchases from The Company That Should Be Split Up.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly! I think the nature of the film — a human drama, largely inspired by real-life experiences — means that it’s likely to reach a much wider audience than a straight documentary could ever achieve. It’s definitely raising our awareness and understanding of these issues, for sure.

      Reply
  12. Annabel (AnnaBookBel)

    The book is on my pile – after seeing the film (which I loved) I had to get the book – to find out more about Linda May and Swankie amongst others and the reality of the nomads’ lives. Your review will make me read it sooner rather than later.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent! I think you’ll find it fascinating, Annabel, particularly because we learn more about Linda May and Swankie through the book. Linda May in particular is a focal point for Bruder, which gives the book a kind of through line I guess. Plus, it goes into the social issues and causes of the whole phenomenon in more detail, so there’s plenty to get immersed in.

      Reply
  13. gina in alabama

    This mega-company also as a significant presence in England. Do they use seniors as a labor source in a similar way there? I have a friend who is living the houseless lifestyle, van living, work-camping at a campground in the West this summer. She broke her ankle recently and required surgery. The operators of the campground so far have been supportive, but I wonder how this will work out come winter. I read the book but have not seen the film yet.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if they use seniors in the same way in the UK, but their working practices do appear to be similar – regular targets, countdowns to tell workers how long they have to get to the next item etc. etc. I recall seeing a TV documentary expose about their UK warehouses/picking centres 5 or 6 years ago, so it’s been in the public domain for some time. I hope your friend is okay. As you say, it’s worrying to think what might happen to people if they get ill or sustain injuries like that, especially in winter months…

      Reply
  14. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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