Nomadland Summary

Nomadland is a 2017 nonfiction book by investigative journalist Jessia Bruder about the growing American nomad community.

  • Bruder primarily follows Linda May, a sixty-four-year-old woman who began living and traveling in a trailer after finding that her Social Security checks didn’t cover her rent.
  • Linda and others like her, most of whom once lived middle-class lives, work backbreaking temporary jobs but treasure the freedom and companionship of the road.
  • Ultimately, Linda is able to begin fulfilling her dream of building her own permanent home, but Bruder worries about the ever-increasing wealth disparity that has necessitated nomadic living.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

Nomadland is a journalistic nonfiction book about the new breed of American nomads: people who, often because they have lost their jobs or savings, or because they cannot afford to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, now live on the road. Jessica Bruder, a journalist, charts several years in the life of this nomad community, primarily through her relationship with Linda May, a woman in her sixties who lives in a trailer called the Squeeze Inn.

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Linda has previously held a variety of minimum wage jobs. The child of an alcoholic father, she swore never to find herself trapped as her mother had, but as an older woman, she found her Social Security would not cover her rent. This made her begin to dream of an "Earthship," a sustainable off-grid house, but she did not know at first how to make the move.

One of the roles Linda took to bridge the gap was at CamperForce, Amazon's warehouse crew. Bruder visited Fernley, a town now filled with CamperForce workers. CamperForce recruits many retirees to its hubs in former mining and factory towns; they are extremely dependable, and many no longer have a comfortable retirement to look forward to because of the 2008 financial crash.

Linda came across Bob Wells's website, CheapRVLiving.com, when researching how to live on her Social Security checks. Bob set up this website when, following his 1995 divorce, he was forced to live in a box trailer. After a period of adjustment, he began to enjoy this way of living and then set up a website, which sparked a thriving online community. Since 2011, this community of vandwellers has met annually at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Arizona. Linda, inspired, decided to buy an RV, apply for a job as a Camp Host and then one at Amazon, and go to the next Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, or RTR.

Linda found her first stint at Amazon extremely demanding, but she also met a number of other nomads with whom she became fast friends. Her health was a problem: she had no health insurance when she had a health scare. But she felt self-sufficient and free when she moved on to Quartzsite, Arizona, a gathering place for nomads filled with decommissioned school buses and other temporary businesses. Quartzsite has been a refuge for travelers since it was first settled and is now home to the RTR.

Linda greatly enjoyed her first RTR, loving the companionship and the seminars, which taught her how to be more self-sufficient. Here she met LaVonne, who would become a close friend, and reconnected with Silvianne, whom she had met at Amazon. A recruitment fair of sorts, the Big Tent, came to the RTR to recruit for various other "workamper" temporary jobs. After the gathering, Linda held yard sales to rid herself of the contents of a storage unit which had held the remnants of her old life.

Partway through her journey into documenting the nomadic lifestyle, Bruder recognized that she could not truly understand the nomads’ complexity without becoming one of them. So, she bought her own van, which she called Halen, and joined Linda at Quartzsite. Another vandweller, Charlene Swankie, invited Bruder to join her potluck dinner, and Bruder swiftly began to understand how a sense of family could quickly grow up between these people.

Having purchased her van, Bruder decided to experience workamping for herself. She traveled to the annual sugar beet harvest and endured the physically taxing work for several days before leaving. She then traveled to Texas to take a job at an Amazon warehouse, which she found regimented and disheartening, as well as tiring. Unlike the real nomads, however, Bruder had the advantage of being able to leave.

LaVonne, meanwhile, was camping in San Diego in her van at this time and feeling increasingly disheartened. Homelessness is more stigmatized in America than ever before, and LaVonne realized she was getting off lightly when a policeman simply knocked on her van and asked her to leave. For others, particularly non-white people, life would be even more difficult on the road.

Still, for many nomads, the idea of feeling free is what keeps them going. Linda and LaVonne traveled together to the RTR in 2016, which Bruder also attended. At this event, Bruder began to wonder what would happen to these people when they achieved true old age. It seemed difficult to see how they could ever retire happily.

For Linda, however, there was a glimmer of hope. She had found and bought some land cheaply on Craigslist. However, she could not drive out to see it because her next Amazon job was starting sooner than expected, so Bruder went for her, to report on the terrain. Linda seemed delighted with her land, and Bruder hoped she would be able to fulfil her dream.

The final chapter in Bruder's book sees Linda on her way to begin working on her Earthship. She is accompanied by her friends LaVonne and Gary, and has bought a generator and found a reasonably priced excavator. For Linda, there is the promise of a better future. But Bruder wonders whether the same is true of other nomads—or even of the future of America. After all, she is now beginning to see nomadic living even in Brooklyn, along with a wealth disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest which is ever-growing. Bruder questions what "retirement" will look like in the America of the future.

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