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Southwest Book Review: 'Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century' by Jessica Bruder

Award-winning journalist Jessica Bruder went on the road to write her latest book "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century." She chronicles the lives of older Americans living in campers and vans, trying to stay afloat after job loss, health problems and a deteriorating American Dream. Bruder is a pro at writing about the dark underbelly of the nation’s economy and the subcultures of people affected. "Nomadland" is the focus of this month’s Southwest Book Review by Mary Sojourner.

Too often, investigative journalism (especially of the lives of the disadvantaged) can leave the reader with mere shadows of that reality—as though the writer observed and reported through a safe lens of detached entitlement. Jessica Bruder is not a dispassionate watcher. She enters fully into the lives of the older itinerant workers she studies in “Nomadland.” She eats with them, sorrows with them - and she works alongside them in jobs that more often than not are physically exhausting and low pay. And her companions not only open up to her, they befriend her.

Bruder is far younger than most of the Amazon CamperForce workers; BLM and Forest Service campground managers; carnival workers and beet harvest laborers with whom she speaks, eats, parties and sweats. Her informants are women and men in their sixties, seventies and eighties. They have been driven into—and chosen—to live "houseless', not in huge fifth wheel rigs, but little hand-modified campers and vans, and in cars altered into true tiny homes.

While many love their lives on the road, most of them would have not chosen to be van-dwellers. These contemporary aging and old nomads have often been the victims—though they would not want to be labeled as such—of an obscenely stacked American economy. They have worked hard and followed the rules, only to see their jobs, savings, homes and equities wiped out by market fluctuations, a rapidly tech-dominated employment market, costly health problems and an escalating American value system that is focused on "like" and "hits" and having what we want instantly. And, they have too often been silenced by the convention that to talk about economic injustice is bad manners at best—and whining at worst.

While “Nomadland” makes all of this clear, Bruder does it not by lecturing. She is, instead, a genius at "Show, don't tell." She works in an Amazon warehouse as part of a seasonal labor force and is merciless in her dissection of the company's exploitation of the workers. By the time I put down the book, she had taken me through her impeccable details into the lives of Linda, a free-spirited 60-plus woman working her way through low-pay part-time jobs toward a future in which she might be able to park her trailer on a chunk of desert; Bob Wells, unofficial van-dweller guru and creator of the website,; the close-knit gatherings of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, and Quartzite's "The Gathering Place"; and the possibility of a future in which I might, someday find myself—by virtue of job loss, health challenges, an exponentially withering literary world and a persistent distaste for the mythical American Dream. If you—or someone dear to you—is aging, struggling to get by and increasingly dubious about a golden old age, Jessica Bruder has written this book for you.

Mary Sojourner is the author of three novels: Sisters of the Dream Northland Publishers, 1989; Going Through Ghosts, University of Nevada Press, 2010 and 29, Torrey House Press, 2014; the short story collection, Delicate, Nevermore Press, 2001 and Scribner, 2004; essay collection, Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest University of Nevada Press, 2002 and 2004; memoir, Solace: rituals of loss and desire, Scribner, 2004; and memoir/self-help guide, She Bets Her Life, Seal Press, 2010. She has been a ten-year NPR commentator and now reviews books for KNAU’s Southwest Book Reviews. She’s the author of op eds and columns for High Country News, Yoga Journal, Writers on the Range, Matador Network and dozens of other publications. She was chosen as a Distinguished Writer in Residence in 2007 by the Virginia C. Piper Center for Creative Writing, ASU.
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