On the road with ‘Nomadland’

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Nearly nine million Americans in the 65-and-older age demographic were still working in 2016 — up 60 percent from a decade prior. In “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” Jessica Bruder precedes that statistic with a quote from Monique Morrissey of the Economic Policy Institute: “Starting with the younger baby boomers, each successive generation is now doing worse than previous generations in terms of their ability to retire without seeing a drop in living standards.”

The subtitle of Bruder’s first-rate journalistic work suggests that survival is the goal of the men and women she profiles. Of retirement age, they are “workampers,” traveling laborers who get seasonal jobs at places like Amazon’s fulfillment centers or the American Crystal Sugar Company’s annual sugar beet harvest. To reach their next gig, the workampers travel in vans and other vehicles, in which they also live.

They are the new nomads, who have “wheel estate” rather than “stick-and-brick” homes.

What the vandwellers are doing is, indeed, more than just traveling from job to job, and more than just surviving. “For them — as for anyone — survival isn’t enough,” Bruder writes. “So what began as a last-ditch effort has become a battle cry for something greater ... As much as food or shelter, we require hope.” The American Dream may be a myth, but its ethos of self-determination pervades the vandwelling community.

Nomadland is a powerful depiction of America in the wake of the Great Recession, frankly presenting people’s struggles to get by along with the hope and camaraderie that make those challenges endurable.

Like millions of non-vandwellers, they must also contend with the choices that arise in a country with great income inequality. “What parts of this life are you willing to give up, so you can keep on living?” Zooming out, Bruder adds another frightening question: “When do impossible choices start to tear people — a society — apart?”

Hope may be an American and even a basic human value, but it’s also pretty capricious. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of. 

This review first appeared in The New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News. To read the full review, visit goo.gl/4rVN4t.

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