Journalist Bruder (Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man, 2007) expands her remarkable cover story for Harper’s into a book about low-income Americans eking out a living while driving from locale to locale for seasonal employment.
From the beginning of her immersion into a mostly invisible subculture, the author makes it clear that the nomads—many of them senior citizens—refuse to think of themselves as “homeless.” Rather, they refer to themselves as “houseless,” as in no longer burdened by mortgage payments, repairs, and other drawbacks, and they discuss “wheel estate” instead of real estate. Most of them did not lose their houses willingly, having fallen victim to mortgage fraud, job loss, health care debt, divorce, alcoholism, or some combination of those and additional factors. As a result, they sleep in their cars or trucks or cheaply purchased campers and try to make the best of the situation. At a distance, the nomads might be mistaken for RV owners traveling the country for pleasure, but that is not the case. Bruder traveled with some of the houseless for years while researching and writing her book. She builds the narrative around one especially accommodating nomad, senior citizen Linda May, who is fully fleshed on the page thanks to the author’s deep reporting. May and her fellow travelers tend to find physically demanding, low-wage jobs at Amazon.com warehouses that aggressively seek seasonal workers or at campgrounds, sugar beet harvest sites, and the like. The often desperate nomads build communities wherever they land, offering tips for overcoming common troubles, sharing food, repairing vehicles, counseling each other through bouts of depression, and establishing a grapevine about potential employers. Though very little about Bruder’s excellent journalistic account offers hope for the future, an ersatz hope radiates from within Nomadland: that hard work and persistence will lead to more stable situations.
Engaging, highly relevant immersion journalism.