Home > 2010, 21st Century, American Literature, Beach and Public Transports Books, Bruder Jessica, Highly Recommended, Non Fiction > Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder – Humbling, infuriating and touching

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder – Humbling, infuriating and touching

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (2018) Available in French.

I never read women’s magazines, mostly because I find them vapid. I’m more of a BYOB (Bring Your Own Book) person as far as waiting rooms are concerned. A few weeks ago, I forgot my book at home and flipped through Grazia and stumbled upon a fascinating article about Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. I knew I had to read this and indeed, I devoured it in one sitting.

Nomadland is a non-fiction book written by journalist Jessica Bruder who spent three years living on and off with vandwellers, people who left their brick-and-mortar homes to live in an RV. They move from place to place and survive on seasonal jobs. The seasonal jobs consist in working at campsites or amusement parks in the summer, at an Amazon warehouse for the Christmas rush or harvesting sugar in Minnesota. Bruder had her own RV, and moved around with them.

We follow Linda, a sixty-four-year-old woman who just finished to prepare her tiny RV and leaves her family to work at a campsite in California. She and her friend Silvianne will work there the whole summer. Through Linda and her friends, we slowly discover the parallel world of vandwellers, the horrible working conditions of these seasonal workers, their annual gathering in Arizona during the winter, in a place named Quartzsite.

There are three sides to Nomadland, and none of them will leave you indifferent.

The most emotional one is discovering this nomadic community, hearing about the personal stories of the people Jessica Bruder met. Most of them are old and should be enjoying retirement but their pension is not high enough for them to do so. They have to work. Some are broke because of the 2008 financial crisis. They lost their house due to a foreclosure. They lost their pension because all their money evaporated in the crash. They had health issues, went through a divorce or lost their job. They had what we call in French, des accidents de la vie, the ones that are covered by social benefits in Europe.

I felt a lot of respect for the people she met. They endure difficult living conditions because no matter how you try to sugarcoat it, living in an RV is hard. It’s tiny, it’s cold during the winter, it can break down and if you’re a city, you need to be invisible. I enjoyed the part about Quartzsite and the RV’ers reunion. It’s full of workshops to help people live better in their RV.

They stay positive, feed their hope for a better future or have decided that this way of life was best for them. They bonded. Some have blogs and Facebook pages. They live on the edge and I couldn’t help wondering what would become of them. They’re all ageing. What happens when they get sick and can’t work anymore? Where are they going to live when they are too old to move around in such a small space? Who will take care of them?

The most infuriating side of Nomadland is reading about working conditions at Amazon. Let me tell you something: besides kindle books, I will never buy anything from Amazon again. Never. The working conditions described here are despicable. We’re talking about exploiting people with an unequaled cynicism. (By the way, in Europe, the unions of 15 countries had a meeting on April 29th, 2019 to fight together for better working conditions at Amazon in Europe. Their slogan was “Treated like robots by Amazon. We are humans, not robots”)

I’m talking about inhuman working conditions regarding the environment, the stupidity of the job to be done, the cadences to be kept and the general management of employees. Their working conditions is the cost of your receiving your parcel on time.

By cynicism I mean: offering free painkillers in the breakrooms because employee ache everywhere; publishing recommendations in an in-house magazine for new employees about getting in shape before coming to be sure they’ll hold on; exploiting the easy RV’ers workforce through their recruitment site Amazon CamperForce and get tax credits for it. Here’s one story about a CamperForce experience:

When Barb and Chuck showed up in Quartzsite for the first time, they were still recovering from their three-month stint at CamperForce. Like their coworkers, they’d faced a triple trial there. First came physical exhaustion. (“Muscles I never knew I had are shouting at me after ten hours of lifting, twisting, squatting, reaching,” Barb reflected.) Then came Kafka-style madness. (After forty-five minutes spent hunting for a bin with enough room to stow a product, Barb had to repeat “breathe, breathe” to stay sane in the warehouse, which she nicknamed “Amazoo.”) Last came flat-out survival: the stress of subzero temperatures in an RV built for warmer climes. (The rig’s water supply got cut off after a filter froze and burst. Then its pump broke. Chuck lost a day of work getting repairs done.)

And the lovely Linda ended up with a repetitive motion injury from using the handheld barcode scanner. It left behind a visible mark, a grape-sized lump on her right wrist. Even worse was what she could not see: a searing pain that radiated the length of her right arm, from thumb to wrist, through elbow and shoulder, ending in her neck. Lifting an eight-ounce coffee cup or a cooking pan was enough to trigger an agonizing jolt. She believed it to be a bad case of tendonitis, but knowing that hadn’t helped abolish the affliction. A year after, she still hadn’t recovered from it. I have lots of quotes and all of them made me really angry. How can they treat people that way? Farm animals have better working conditions than that.

Now, are you going to fatten Jeff Bezos with your next Christmas shopping?

The most educational side of Nomadland was the questioning about poverty and how a rich country as America has come to this. Jessica Bruder doesn’t give lectures but peppers her story with facts and analysis. To sum it up, several factors concur to the problem: rents have increased a lot faster than wages, the American retirement-finance model showed its limits during the 2008 crisis (where is your pension when the financial markets collapse?) and all this is a culture where economic misfortune was blamed largely on its victims. I’ll add wild capitalism that pushes on the selfishness button we all have in us and a criminal laissez-faire of politicians. Some things cost nothing on the country’s budget: regulations about loans, about the minimum wages, about retirement plans and protect people from corporate wolves.

But this is not a blog about economy or politics, it’s a literary blog. Why should you read Nomadland? Besides the informative content, I thought that Jessica Bruder’s writing was engaging. She writes well and wants us to share her experience. She went all in, living in an RV herself and her comments about how that felt were invaluable. She did more than interviewing vandwellers. She shared their lives, earned their trust and opened our eyes on a parallel world. I hope that Linda is doing well, I’m rooting for her and her projects. Her resilience and optimism are commendable and Jessica Bruder gave her a voice.

Rush for this book, it’s a gem.

PS: This book is in the Beach and Public Transport category, not because it’s fluffly but because it’s so well-written that it’s easy to read.

  1. June 3, 2019 at 1:46 am

    As you say, in Europe, there is a safety net for people who suffer a life crisis. Both the UK and Australia are going the same way as the US, and it’s a constant battle to protect wages and benefits. I think we have reached a very awkward point in our economy, where the taxes that support the safety net are paid by a shrinking middle-class, who are now starting to feel the pinch themselves. So they want everything cheap: they use Uber and Amazon and the like even though they know that the workers are not paid properly and have no financial security. Governments want to keep this sector happy, so they give them tax cuts, which makes the situation even worse.
    A lot of older people here lost their super in the GFC and are still working.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 3, 2019 at 8:50 pm

      “I think we have reached a very awkward point in our economy, where the taxes that support the safety net are paid by a shrinking middle-class, who are now starting to feel the pinch themselves”
      I think the same is happening here too. (Part of the reasons for the Yellow Vest movement, at the beginning at least)

      I’m not sure people only use Uber and Amazon because it’s cheap. Here Uber isn’t cheaper than a taxi, they fill a sort of void in the offer of services.
      As far as Amazon is concerned, their main asset is their delivery. And I read the cost of these quick deliveries for the workers. I think we need to re-learn to be patient and wait for a few days before what we buy arrives at home. In the West, we are becoming a people of toddlers: we can’t wait without throwing a tantrum and we have the attention span of a goldfish.

      Here retired people are mostly OK because they usually had full careers. Women may be poor if they didn’t work long enough and got divorced. Their pension can be very low.
      We are not fond of investing our savings on stock markets and we fought to keep the State retirement plans even if it costs us a fortune.

      Liked by 1 person

      • June 4, 2019 at 10:33 am

        Perhaps the appeal of Amazon is a bit different here too, because of distance. Australia, being so far from everything, has never had the range of choices that were available elsewhere. We manufactured products ourselves, or we relied on retailers to decide what products would be imported. (So, in the world of books, before online shopping, we could choose between Australian books, and the US/UK books that retailers thought would sell. Translations were hard to get, so was anything from anywhere that wasn’t a bestseller from the US or UK.) The range and availability of products from Amazon is very appealing for some people.
        But as you say, we ought to be thinking about the ethical implications of the purchases we make. We ought not to support employers who don’t pay a decent wage or whose employees suffer injuries at work, even if that means going without some products.

        Liked by 1 person

        • June 5, 2019 at 9:16 pm

          I can understand your point about Australians using Amazon because it gives people access to a broader choice of goods.

          But here, when I ask around why people use Amazon, they always mention the speedy delivery. Even on Sundays, which is almost a sacrilege here, not for religious reasons but because we want to keep a day in the week where the family is together. A girlfriend told me she felt bad for the delivery guy who brought her parcel on a Sunday night, at a time she wasn’t even expecting it…because it was Sunday.

          They create needs that don’t exist in the first place. In France, shops are mostly closed on Sundays and we are used to it. It’s a day off for everyone who doesn’t work in a industry that has to work 24/24 – 7/7 like trains or hospitals or in the tourism/entertainment industry.

          Yes. I think that, since these corporations are only interested in making money, we ought to talk their language and boycott them when they don’t meet our ethical standards. I get to choose where I spend my money. So, no goods from Amazon for me. No coffee Starbucks they start paying taxes in my country. Meanwhile, I go to independant cafés or chain coffee shops that are French based.

          But that’s not the only fascinating point about Nomadland. The description of the RV’ers community, the meet in the Arizona desert and the personal stories of the people make you touch their experience with the tip of your fingers. They have my parents’ age and I can’t imagine them living on a van and working the long hours that are described here.

          I believe we’ll have more old people working, though but not for the same reasons. There will be a generation that has lived through a broken career (small jobs, temp jobs, unenmployment periods, and periods with a classic job) You only pay contributions to the retirement system when you are gainfully employed. The other times (parental leave, unemployement,…) are considered as contributions for the time but do not contribute to the pension you get. So…people will have validated enough working or equivalent-to-working years to have the right to retire but their pension will be calculated on the working years. We’re building a generation of poor pensioners.


      • Vishy
        June 7, 2019 at 2:00 pm

        I loved this conversation! Very insightful! Thank you, Lisa and Emma!


  2. June 3, 2019 at 8:20 am

    This sounds an essential read. So often these stories remain hidden.


    • June 3, 2019 at 8:55 pm

      It is. It’s unbelievable and yet, it’s well-documented. It’s also clear that Jessica Bruder befriended the people she met, that she wanted to tell their stories and let the world know about this new way of living.

      It’s SO American in many ways: the absence of safety net, the quiet optimism that things can turn around anytime, the wariness regarding State run things, the acceptance that they are struggling and that nobody will help them but themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. June 3, 2019 at 11:58 pm

    I lived in a van for a couple of years (here in Australia), in semi-permanent locations, and enjoyed it. Facilities are mostly good, there are parks in the cities as well as in country towns, and there is a camaraderie. The differences of course were that my wife and I were young, and that we weren’t reliant on seasonal work. I, and I suspect many of your readers, are perfectly happy for you to review whatever book catches your attention. And this one, which illustrates our return – and our surprise at our return – to C19th labour conditions, is definitely of interest. I endorse your boycott!


    • June 5, 2019 at 8:53 pm

      Why am I not surprised that you lived a couple of years in a van? I think it’s different to do it when you’re young. I suppose it was in the 1970s where it was more a choice, even a statement than a way to cut costs.
      Jessica Bruder describes the camaraderie you mention.

      And yes, Zola would have a field day with working conditions at Amazon and in other big corporations. Unfortunately.


  4. June 7, 2019 at 11:32 am

    Sounds like a fascinating book. I echo your thoughts about Amazon, about the craziness (and pointlessness, in the end) of expecting things to arrive immediately whatever the cost to others, about the miserable side of US-style capitalism… If you’ve never read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, I recommend it though it’s not a cheerful book either.


    • June 7, 2019 at 8:01 pm

      It’s a fascinating book, one that deserve a wide audience.

      I’ll have a look at The Jungle.

      Nomadland is also very touching because as a reader, you “befriend” the Rv’ers and want to know more about them.
      I really recommend this book.


  5. Vishy
    June 7, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma! I have never heard of this book. Now I want to read it soon. It is sad that this new age internet capitalism has a dark side which is really dark. I loved the French expression you quoted – “des accidents de la vie”. Very beautifully expressed though it is about unfortunate happenings. It is sad that many people’s pension fund git wiped out in 2008. It is sad that internet giants like Amazon are exploiting these people. The life in the RV sounds so free, nomadic and adventurous in our imagination, but looks so hard in practice, from what the book says. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


    • June 7, 2019 at 8:05 pm

      Thanks Vishy.

      What makes me angry is that people like Bezos become billionaires at the expense of their employee and then set up charities and try to convince us that their are charitable.
      But granting decent working conditions and wages to your workers and make less profits would be more commendable.


      • Vishy
        June 8, 2019 at 12:59 am

        Yes, that is very true, Emma. It is sad that Bezos and others like him are not bothered about employees and providing them better wages and better working conditions. I remember reading the biography of Andrew Carnegie, the guy who was big in the American steel industry. His employees hated him, because they were poorly paid and he treated them badly. But later when he retired, he started charity foundations and now he is known as a philanthropist. I thought those days of the big bad capitalists were over, and the internet era billionaires are better, but it looks like nothing much has changed. It is sad and heartbreaking.

        Liked by 1 person

        • June 9, 2019 at 11:43 am

          That’s exactly my point, Vishy


  6. July 20, 2021 at 7:53 pm

    I liked the fact that Bruder doesn’t lecture us or turn her book into a polemic. She leaves it up to us to respond through our own emotions – and to draw our own conclusions from the information presented – an excellent approach, I think. Like you, I particularly struck by the painkiller dispensers in the warehouse (and the idea that this presented to the employees as a kind of benefit) – it says a lot about this organisation’s attitude towards the workers, doesn’t it, as you point out…

    The personal stories really bring it all alive.


    • July 27, 2021 at 7:48 am

      This is a book that stayed with me and I’m still angry when I think about what these older workers have to endure.
      For the record, I’ve kept my promise about not buying anything on Amazon.


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