52 pages 1 hour read

Jessica Bruder

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2017

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Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder is a critically acclaimed work of travel nonfiction and literary reportage that was first published in 2017. The book braids together the stories of several people Bruder follows over three years while incorporating historical and social context for their decision to live out of a mobile home.

Bruder, an award-winning journalist and professor at Columbia University, chronicles the lives van dwelling “nomads,” mostly older Americans, who live off the grid working menial seasonal jobs in order to survive. Many of the nomads Bruder encounters watched their jobs, savings, or retirement disappear in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which forced them to reconsider their lifestyles and abandon traditional housing.

Nomadland was named one of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2017 as well as a New York Times Editor’s Pick. Publications such as Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and Booklist also listed it as one of the best books of 2017. In 2017, Nomadland was adapted into a short documentary entitled “CamperForce,” directed by Brett Story. Bruder’s book was then adapted into a feature film of the same name in 2020, directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances McDormand. Zhao cast the some of the subjects profiled in Bruder’s book to play themselves in her film adaptation, which won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress in 2021.


Bruder travels to meet up with the book’s main subject, Linda May, in California at her seasonal job working as a campground host, where she earns just above minimum wage. Bruder had initially learned about downwardly mobile, older Americans who decide to live out RVs, vans, and cars in the midst of a reporting a story, and follows Linda as the central protagonist throughout the book. Linda tells Bruder her story, and the many jobs she’s worked over the years, which despite her best efforts have still left her struggling financially. She learns about van dwelling through blogger Bob Wells’ website CheapRVLiving.com and decides to buy an RV to live and travel in.

By studying the economic shifts and jobless recovery post-2008 recession, Bruder uncovers how the middle class life people like Linda once relied upon is disappearing as the nation’s wealth gap grows. Linda is just one of many Americans unable to retire due to financial losses, the decrease in private pensions, and cuts to Social Security. Retirement, a Depression-era social ideal, has evolved into being viewed as a handout rather than a means to support older Americans. Linda’s retirement dream is to build a sustainable house called an Earthship where she can live permanently.

Many nomads like Linda work as seasonal employees at Amazon warehouses through a program called CamperForce. Despite their old age and medical issues, many work these jobs for little money in order to survive. Bruder follows Linda during her first grueling and relentless season as a CamperForce employee in an Amazon fulfillment center. After the holiday season, she and Bruder journey to Quartzsite, Arizona, home of the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous and a town known to be friendly for low-income, retirement-age nomads seeking warm weather during the wintertime. Bruder meets a number of other nomads, reporting their stories and how their experience as van dwellers has shifted over time.

Bruder decides to buy and outfit her own van to better understand Linda as well as her other subjects. She quickly realizes van dwelling is not easy or intuitive, and comes with many challenges. In addition, Bruder works as both a CamperForce worker and sugar beet harvester. At both jobs, she is subjected to the same physically demanding and sometimes dangerous work older Americans are forced to sign up for in order to support themselves.

Older van dwellers eventually run into obstacles as they age. New laws begin to crack down on houseless van dwellers, making it more difficult for folks like Linda to live out of their vehicles. Linda is concerned for her family and her own health, and decides to buy a piece of inexpensive land in Arizona. When she is unable to go view the land as planned, Bruder visits for her and reports back what she finds.

When Bruder returns home to Brooklyn, she finds herself noticing more mobile homes and van dwellers all around the neighborhood. At the same time, Linda begins excavating her property and begins to build her dream house.