Book Review: Nomadland by Jessica Bruder

In 1994, I went to visit Sage’s mom and “family of choice” for the first time on the land they lived on in rural Missouri. The ride from Springfield, Missouri seemed to take forever. We went from a sprawling city of about 160,000 filled with strip malls and parking lots to a highway cutting through flat open fields, occasionally filled with grazing cows and once with bison. An hour later we turned off the divided highway onto a road of rolling hills through forest, finally arriving at an intersection. On one side was a Wal Mart, opposite that, a McDonalds. In the distance we could see a dollar store, a supermarket, and then, the town was over again. We found our way to a narrower road, barely wide enough for two cars that went over steeper rolling hills and around curves. Despite this, the speed limit was a fast 50mph (80 km/hr). As we crested each hill and immediately went steeply downward, my stomach would lodge itself again and again in my throat.

And then we turned on to a narrow dirt road. Now we had to stop sometimes to inch through a running creek that crossed the road, finally turning at an abandoned, trailer onto a pair of tire tracks through low cedars. Grass grew up between the tracks. Finally, the road became impassable for our small car and we pulled to the side next to some cedar trees across from a field. As we got out, we heard cows mooing in the neighbouring field and dogs barking in the distance.

Finally we arrived home: a women-only space miles from town. Sage’s mom, Kite and her partner met us at the end of the driveway and took us to her house, a large tipi surrounded by trees. In the middle of the tipi a wood stove had been buried under dirt and rocks, a stovepipe leading to the smoke hole of the tipi.

After tea and snacks we were shown around. Our first stop was a 10 x 12 garden shed – Kite’s partner’s place – now ours for a week. Its door had been replaced by a the storm door of a house. A deck provided some outdoor space. The space inside had been insulated with fiberglass and covered by cardboard. More holes had been cut for windows. In the back was a sleeping loft about four feet off the ground with enough space for two. A gas-fired heater had been installed for heat. On the floor was a gallon jug of water next to a two-burner hotplate. An indoor/outdoor extension cord led out of the building to the one building with electricity, a former goat barn, that was now a shared kitchen. A short distance away was the outhouse which included a 5 gallon plastic bucket and a bucket of sawdust for “flushing”

Several other women also lived on this land, each with their own personal spaces of different styles but all relatively small. Not far from the tipi was an old barn with windows of plastic sheeting, couches and wood stove. In one corner a small TV sat on a stand, its plug also plugged in to another orange indoor/outdoor extension cord. Those who were feeling sociable could go to the barn and relax and maybe be joined by others.

Sage and stayed for a week. Nights would be cold, often well below freezing, but we were kept warm by the heater (being sure to keep a window open to ensure that carbon monoxide didn’t build. In the morning we would go to the tipi and sit with Kite and her partner, drinking tea and instant coffee. Sometimes Kite would crochet, other times she would dip wicks in wax warming on the stove, hanging them to dry afterward. Sometimes we would join Kite and her partner to do chores, gathering fallen dead wood or going to the spring to fetch water. Other times we’d sit in the barn, watch TV, read or chat with whomever showed up. The others might also bring books, drawings they were working on or other crafts, letters they were writing. It looked to me that apart from some time spent for necessary chores like gathering wood, cooking, or dealing with waste and occasional paying work, they had a fair bit of free time to do with as they pleased. Certainly more than the time I had working 8-12 hour days, commuting 3-6 hours daily round trip.

To me, having been raised in a traditional American home, my mind was blown. Everyone here was living so simply that their expenses were minimized and their need to work was less than mine. As for us, we lived in a home near work so that I could work to pay for my home and the car that would take me to and from work. At that moment I saw what a bizarre treadmill I was on. I worked so that I could afford to go to work.

One day during our stay, I sat in the barn and Kite’s partner showed me a brochure from a company that made yurts, beautiful tiny spaces based on traditional Mongolian homes. This experience and brochure planted a seed that ended four years later with us living in a yurt of our own just a few miles from where we first learned of them.

So of course, when I first saw the preview for Nomadland, I was immediately reminded of that first visit.

Once I found out it was adapted from a book by Jessica Bruder, I reserved it at the library and absolutely devoured it. The movie could wait – I’ll watch that later.

In the book, we meet several people who live a simple life in much the same way as Sage’s family – and eventually we did. But in their case they did not even have a piece of land to call home. Instead they bought vehicles, everything as big as a camper down to cars, living inside them year round. When the work ran out in one space they would drive somewhere else, hundreds or thousands of miles away.

When we lived in the yurt, we might have very little – sometimes $20-30 in our bank account. Some months we managed on $300. But we always felt relatively safe. We had a roof over our head and community who would help if things got too difficult or if we just needed a short break from being parents. But many of the people in this book didn’t seem to even have that.

While they had community, it seemed that the lack of a stable location meant that many spent their time days or even hours away from complete homelessness.

The most surprising thing for me is who was actually in this situation. When we lived in the yurt, the others we knew there were in their 30’s to their 50’s, but the circumstances that resulted in people living in their cars were different. Whether their job ran out, a medical bill ate all their savings, or they never had a job that would allow them to prepare for their retirement, they found themselves in their 60’s, 70’s, or older with no other options. Their retirement never happened. Instead, they found themselves sleeping in a van and working nights in an Amazon warehouse packaging orders, often walking 20+ miles in a night. Many couldn’t even get help from family. Some were estranged from family, others had children who were in similarly difficult situations, while others still did not want to impose on their children.

Just as my eyes were opened by seeing people deliberately dropping out of the capitalist lifestyle, choosing another path, so too did this book open my eyes. Except this time it was in a negative way. It felt like the upside down version of what I had seen before. No longer a matter of choice, people are spending their final years working harder than ever.

Of course not everyone is unhappy all of the time. Many do enjoy the freedom that living this way gives them, the ability to live among nature, helping out at campgrounds or living in the desert. Others enjoy either the isolation and privacy or the camaraderie that happens when living together with friends..

We lived in our yurt for two years, moving to a cheap house in the nearby town down the street from the Wal Mart we passed on our first trip there. For the first four years of our son’s life all three of us were able to spend the majority of our time together while I would periodically take a weeks or months-long temporary contract in the pharmaceutical industry, refilling the bank account periodically. In 2002, one temporary contract drew me back in to full time work. Soon after, we decided to move to Canada. Now, instead of my working in a city because it’s close to my job that pays for my home. I am working in a city all three of us love living in. And now that there’s a purpose to living here, I’m as satisfied living a life with a full time job as I was working 5-10 hours/week 3-5 months/year when living in the yurt.

But I will say that reading this book has made me take my contributions to our retirement fund much more seriously.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Nomadland by Jessica Bruder

  1. A well documented journal Todd and the first thing came to my mind was how can one manages retirement funds? I shall look for the book in our local library.

    1. Thanks!

      It’s a good one. Now I’m going to watch the movie when I get the chance.

      Managing retirement funds is really tricky and overwhelming. I’m honestly not sure we’re going to manage and we’ve got a lot of privilege. You’ve got to have enough extra income that you *can* put things aside, then you have to put it in the right funds (the retirement fund providers have a few different options for this of varying risk levels). And then you have to hope for a good economy. A lot of the folks in this book were doing fine until the 2008 crash. Here in Canada lots of folks invested in Nortel as part of their retirement planning (especially their employees). At one time it looked as stable as investing in Apple or Amazon. But then the whole house of cards came down and many completely lost their retirement savings. And then what do you do? What you do depends in part on your social safety net, I guess. Ours in Canada isn’t great (witness folks living in tents in ravines). In the US it’s even worse. And in our culture, poverty is often viewed as judgement – either divine judgement or a reflection of poor choices: addiction, lack of education or simply spending more than you can afford.

      Meanwhile, in the US there’s pretty much nowhere a person can afford to rent an apartment on a minimum wage job. When I first started work in 1985, minimum wage was $3.70 and almost immediately went up to $4/hour. Now it’s $7.25. Meanwhile, according to the inflation calculator I just looked at, an item purchased for $1 then would now cost $2.50. Gasoline costs have more than tripled since then and more people are living further from work to find affordable housing. It’s simply not sustainable.

  2. A recent article about homelessness in Portland, Oregon said that to afford a basic apartment would require a wage of $25 a hour, way beyond what most people make. Nothing glamorous or “choice” about living in a tent these days for sure.

    1. It’s similar here – the average home here in Toronto is now around a million dollars. Average 1BR apartment is about $2,000/month.

      If I recall correctly the US minimum wage is $7.25/hour, ours is $14.25 but in either case, that doesn’t get you far at all. For us, even ignoring taxes that means working 140 hours to pay rent.

      It doesn’t work.

      1. Wow. I knew that Vancouver was dreadful but didn’t know that about Toronto. Sorry to miss the last book chat. As soon as we ventured out we got the stomach flu!!

  3. Thanks for sharing your own story along with the book review, Todd. Both made me stop and think – and want to read this book!

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