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.