Maureen Cooke

Because of the pandemic and the need to socially distance, I never saw Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” (2020) in the theater, and given the film’s apparently bleak topic, I had little interest in streaming it.
However, after the movie won three Oscars in April, I became curious and discovered it was based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.”
“Nomadland,” both the book and the movie, explores an American subculture of “vandwellers,” who live on the road in RVs, trailers, vans and tents, and subsist by working itinerantly at such places as Amazon or national parks. The majority of vandwellers featured in “Nomadland” are past retirement age, each with unique reasons for living on the road; however, those reasons do have a common thread: economic collapse.
Some divorced and lost the marital home. Some lost jobs in the 2008 recession or bought homes during the housing boom and, when it crashed that year, were left upside down on mortgages.
Others were displaced when United States Gypsum shut down its company town in Empire, Nevada, and still others were millennials unable to find decent-paying jobs.
In many respects, vandwellers, much like the Dust Bowl migrants of the 1930s, were forced onto the road through circumstances beyond their control.
The difference — and it is substantial — is very few vandwellers want to return to a conventional lifestyle. They are not waiting for a return to the status quo and believe living on the road establishes independence from an American economy they find no longer tenable.
The book follows Linda May, who has never been able to get a high-paying job. As a result, in her 60s and without a pension, May faces the challenge of how to live on a $500 Social Security benefit.
May realizes that if she eliminates a traditional housing payment, including utilities and insurance, and becomes an itinerant worker, she’ll be able to survive on such little money. She researches her options on, buys a trailer she names the Squeeze Inn and hits the road, where she finds a community of fellow vandwellers.
This community transforms “Nomadland” from a bleak saga of retirees lacking financial resources to a joyful celebration of tenacity and ingenuity. I know very few people who could thrive in such an environment, yet May, along with the other vandwellers, does exactly that.
Very few come across as discouraged, and throughout the book, May works to realize her dream of building an Earthship.
Readers may find some of the book upsetting, such as Bruder’s details of the working conditions vandwellers endure at Amazon, Adventureland and the sugar beet harvest in Minnesota. These jobs are physically demanding, and those who take them may be in their 80s.
Although they don’t complain, a reader could easily come away from the book with the unpleasant realization that a lot of these companies take advantage of workers, who have very few options.
I admired and enjoyed “Nomadland.” Reading it sent me in search of Zhao’s film. I enjoyed that as well and recommend both.
(Maureen Cooke has been writing, editing and teaching others to write for the past 30 years. Currently, she’s working on a mystery novel and a memoir. She’s a member of the Corrales Writers’ Group.)