“Nomadland” – A Classic Book / Movie for Our Times

by on December 15, 2020 · 1 comment

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

By Colleen O’Connor

Wonderful stories that perfectly illuminate an age do exist.  Sometimes becoming bestselling books or blockbuster movies, but that is rare.  Sometimes they also become classics.

Best examples of these contemporary, metaphorical triumphs include Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games; J.K. Rowing’s Harry Potter; Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet; and possibly George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

(In all honesty, the only familiarity I have with that mega-hit was waiting in line for a rent-a-car with a hefty, but kindly guy in front of me, who wore a size XXL T-Shirt with a Thrones insider remark that made me laugh, “I drink and I know things.”)

Although each of the blockbusters commanded massive international audiences and still move global emotions, none have done it with the raw reality of journalist, Jessica Bruder’s book, Nomadland.

While the others are fictional renderings, Bruder’s book is so much more.   Not a cliché’; nor a formulaic plot, Nomadland confronts the pain, disbelief, struggle, and admirable subculture of “houseless,” formerly working-class seniors, who were displaced during the Great Recession of 2008.

Retold with first person narratives, each story displays strengths from these “post-recession refugees,” who are mostly single, elderly, underemployed and wandering.

They travel in old vans of their own creation — in Julian, the back hills of San Bernardino, Salton Sea, and the beaches of Baja. They, too, as the Okies from the last Great Depression, found San Diego.

To survive, they find seasonal work “camp-hosting” at National Parks, do pick-up jobs at casinos, bag sugar beets, and work crippling hours sorting Amazon packages as “Camp Forcers.”

They are what one writer calls “the modern-day version of hunter gathers.” Yet, these van-dwelling pensioners refuse to be pitied, but rather understood.

They have taught themselves and each other coping skills.  They are both tech savvy and old-school; dependable, often educated, and admirable in their charity towards each other.

As part-timer gig-workers, they sleep in Walmart parking lots overnight (ideally between two big trucks), evade police with jerry-rigged scanners; and use McDonald friendly bathrooms.

They host websites, use GPS on their phone, convene for roundups where they provide seminars on engine repairs, know how to “stealth camp,” search for desirable seasonable jobs openings, and have basically re-invented and re-defined themselves as a “pun-happy” subculture, escaping the rat race of middle-class consumerism.

Amazon reigns as the enemy, while fellow nomads around a campsite become cherished friends.

As The Nation’s, Astra Taylor, described Nomadland, “At once wonderfully humane and deeply troubling, the book offers an eye-opening tour of the increasingly unequal, unstable, and insecure future our country is racing toward.”

Katherine Boo of the New Yorker agrees, “This extraordinary book maps the chasm between what America wants to be and what it actually is.”

That’s the book.  Now the movie, just released sparingly to qualify for Oscar contention; stars Frances McDormand and is directed by Chloe Zhao.

The movie has been sweeping the awards circuit heading into the Oscars.  It won the people’s choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the first time any film has won both top honors at these festivals.

The U.S. theatrical release is scheduled for Feb. 19, 2021.

Unlike the first wave of homelessness featured in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, or the second wave of 2008 van dwellers in Nomadland, the third current third wave of homelessness is more obvious for all to see.

Walk mostly anywhere in the city. You’ll see them along the San Diego riverbed, under bridge overpasses, in shuttered business doorways and in front of the empty downtown Library. Or the lucky ones, in tents, sleeping bags, for in doorways.

There are homeless people in every neighborhood. These individuals are not hiding or moving. They exist in plain sight. And they are desperate.

The jobs are not coming back. Governments and businesses are facing bankruptcy. Homelessness will not end. Those elderly 2008 Nomadland refugees, with cars, may be the lucky ones.

A more ominous, insecure future already exists.

Amid all the pandemic and other fears, Nomadland describes the strengths of America — that we, as a people — when faced with calamity — refuse to give up.  We just need inspiration, good company, and a reason to believe.

Nomadland is a place to start.  A must-read book.  A must-see movie.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Larry OB December 18, 2020 at 1:26 pm

Thank you. Your article got me to finally read that book. It’s fresh in my head. I think we need to raise the minimum payment for Social Security and have it be genderless. We need labor laws that protect seniors from employers like Amazon. I’ve long felt that we should reinvent the American campground that caters to drunken fools that like to burn things in a firepit. Perhaps getting Deb Haaland as the new Secretary of the Interior, will bring the changes we need. I wish I could be in one of the nomad camps when they cheer that news.

I didn’t know that the Monopoly game once had a Poorhouse on one of the corners. It later became “Free Parking.” That got me thinking about what happens when we get rid of free parking. We will have to build poorhouses. Corporate poorhouses. Lots of them.


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