This is the nonfiction book that the Oscar-winning movie is based on, and since I loved the movie, of course I had to read the book.
For 3 years, Bruder followed around mostly retirement-age people who live in their vans and make money picking up temporary gigs at Amazon warehouses, beet harvests, and campsites. The most fascinating thing in the book is the contrast between the resilient, strong, and hopeful retirees and the mopey Millennial Bruder who writes about them. As she follows them around, Bruder can’t figure out why they don’t feel victimized or pathetic. It’s got to be because they are white! she decides at some point. If they were black, police would have already murdered all of them on sight!
Bruder can’t understand the world outside of these angsty, infantile truisms. She also fails at the jobs that the vandwellers who are twice her age carry out. The last chapter of the book is especially revealing as Bruder worries and frets incessantly over the possible obstacles that might arise once Linda May, the retirement-age nomad she’s researching, starts building the project of her dreams. Linda May’s optimism and capacity to enjoy life in the midst of the greatest hardship offers a striking contrast to the fussy anxiety of the pampered Bruder.
Chloe Zhao, the director who brought Nomadland to the screen made the correct choice to excise Bruder from the story completely. The book was published in 2017 but we all know what happened then. The generation of Bruders freaked out over COVID and George Floyd, destroyed the economy for everybody, unleashed sky-high crime rates, and is now trying to devise ways to muzzle everybody who doesn’t stand in awe of their “lived experience of trauma” of some sort.
Bruder is a fine writer and, I’m sure, a nice person. But there’s an enormous emptiness at the core of her self that is particularly evident when she writes about the nomads – evicted, broke, old, sick, yet happy, undefeated, and free in a way she’ll never be.