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Rootless RV'ers and ramblers struggle to survive in "Nomadland"

W.W. Norton & Co.
Traveling journalist follows RVers through America in "Nomadland."
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BOOK REVIEW: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (W.W. Norton & Co.) 2017

By the end of Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland, you feel exhausted. Beat down. Almost hopeless.

But many of the figures in Nomadland seem to take their circumstances in stride. Most of them are of retirement age and all are trying to make ends meet, many having assumed in their younger years in the mid-20th century that they would be retired and comfortable in their golden years.

But this is America in the early 21st century. Where crony capitalism has hollowed out many communities in this country, taking many hardworking folks down the whirlpool of financial ruin and desperation.

But Bruder, an award-winning journalist who also teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, saw a growing segment of society – many of them older Americans – struggling to get by, particularly in a fix. Taking to the road like Depression-era vagabonds seeking that Big Rock Candy Mountain.

But that will prove elusive for folks like 64-year-old Linda May, who travels around in a Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo called "The Squeeze Inn" ("yeah, there's room. Squeeze in," Linda would tell Bruder) and either working at National Park campgrounds in California while dreaming of crafting an "Earthship" in the high desert somewhere, to live out her final days on the planet.

Linda and many others featured in this book (most people interviewed are over the age of 50) caravan hither and yon, looking for seasonal work in the North Dakota sugar beet fields or in the semi-sweatshop-esque Amazon warehouses in small towns in Nevada, Kansas and Kentucky. Or they wile away their days in the desolate desert near Quartzsite, Arizona, forming tribes of likeminded folks ("if you don't drive a motorhome like mine, move on down the road, pal!") who see one another in other parts of the American West, the portion of the country where much of this book takes place. 

Oh, Quartzsite? Yeah, it makes sense that RV'ers would be lured to a "bizzare and seriously demented place()" like that. There are kind people. And folks who like to be left alone. You get all sorts. Oh, and it's primarily a white affair. Folks of other races tend not to be part of this "rubber tramp" shindig where the road goes on forever, and the party never ends. 

Well, until that hangover hits you like sack of wet cement.

I think Bruder enjoyed working on this book, even injecting herself into the narrative during the three years and 15,000 miles she spent working on. Bruder was amongst the CamperForce folks and even finds herself working in an Amazon warehouse where sex toys are shipped out like proverbial hotcakes to eager Americans. The author doesn't seem to care much for commas (sample: "Next Linda went to clear out a storage unit she'd been renting ..." - page 158) and by the end, you feel a sense of fatigue mixed with relief that the book is over.

Don't get me wrong, I think Bruder took on an enormous challenge putting Nomadland together. Interviewing hundreds of people (straight, working-class types, dreamers, and many others) and getting out there on the hot, dusty highways and byways of an America that is becoming more fearful that they will pretty much be forced to work until they drop dead. 

Until the younger generation(s) demand change, more and more of their parents and grandparents (and ultimately themselves) will find themselves banging around America in rattletrap RV's, looking for a paycheck, before being forced to move on. It's an old story. And it should be read as a cautionary tale.

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About the Author

Andrew W. Griffin

Editor & Owner.

Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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