Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century
by Jessica Bruder
You can call them houseless—“but don’t you dare call them homeless,” said Rachelle Bergstein in the New York Post. Journalism professor Jessica Bruder spent three years getting to know some of the tens of thousands of Americans who have given up on the dream of a traditional home to live in RVs or vans and travel the country picking up seasonal employment. Known variously as workampers, vandwellers, or rubber tramps, they’re often older Americans whose finances were devastated by medical bills or the 2008 financial crisis, and they flock to short-term gigs at farms, campsites, and the warehouses of Amazon—which aggressively recruits workampers for the run-up to Christmas. Many members of this new breed tell Bruder that they enjoy being free of mortgage payments or rent. Still, it’s “a difficult existence,” and not the life most of these Americans had imagined.
As a reader gets to know them, it’s hard not to be struck by their resiliency and humor, said Kim Ode in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The new nomads boast of owning “wheel estate,” and form friendly ad-hoc communities, sharing potluck dinners and swapping money-saving tips. The veritable star of Nomadland, a spirited 64-year-old grandmother who calls her rig “the Squeeze Inn,” is a hoot. But Linda May is also an example of the book’s blind spots, said Steven Malanga in City Journal. We learn that earlier in life May held jobs as a cocktail waitress, a Home Depot cashier, and an insurance executive, but we don’t hear how she lost them—though a mention of troubles with alcoholism and drug use provides a clue. Another subject confesses to having amassed $30,000 in credit card debt. “Bruder’s itinerants are not Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl.” Many are victims of their own poor choices.
By some measures, they’re the lucky ones, said Parul Sehgal in The New York Times. The workampers take backbreaking work and live without a safety net, but they enjoy advantages over the majority of America’s 3 million migrant workers. Only at the end of Nomadland does Bruder mention that virtually all workampers are white, a phenomenon she shrugs off without considering how the allure of the road might be dimmed for anyone under the threat of racial violence or deportation. However much you worry about the wanderers Bruder so gracefully portrays, “you also ache for the ones without even this option,” the ones who “don’t even merit a mention.”