This is going to be a relatively long post as I have spent the better part of the past few months teaching and crafting a unit plan for a book that needed one but didn’t really seem to have one – Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland. I have been working on my in-person contribution to the Central Massachusetts Community Read program – one that my students and I haven’t been able to participate in since we completed our work with Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You in 2018 that you can read about here, here, here, and here. We did a community art show at the Fitchburg Art Museum that was a huge hit, and the students were proud and invested in the book we read beyond the experience in the classroom. Of course, because of COVID, things have been relatively quiet all around, and the students I have been doing work with remotely were really excited to make a difference in a world that embraced the hard work they did as essential workers as being enough.
I couldn’t agree more.
One completely obvious observation is that while they were on the front lines of the pandemic stocking our supermarkets and making hot takeout orders, they were also on the front lines of the war on wages that have been sending CEOs into the stratosphere while they continued to work in pandemic conditions for paltry wages… Wages that in Massachusetts are astronomical compared to many other parts of the country. It has been no surprise as they have fled their front-line positions because of treatment in labor rights, customer mistreatment, and overall dissatisfaction in every area of the service industry that was bordering on inhumane even before the pandemic. Of course now, just trying to get a cheeseburger at insert-your-own-junk-food-establishment-here has become a lesson in balancing one’s appetite with the level of patience one is willing to tolerate as what remains of the short-staffed employees have dwindled to a skeleton crew. Signs reading “everywhere is short-staffed, please be kind” and “who says you have to retire?…put your experience to work!” targeting senior citizens to apply, both at Burger King, are commonplace everywhere.
The questions became to me, how can I have my students reflect on the state of the modern economy? What elements of housing, money, and the American Dream seem within reach, and which seem a galaxy away? Between the real estate crash, the stagnant wages, rising cost of college and medical treatment, and a hundred ways in which the nuclear family has failed them and their parents and their parent’s parents, they were born into a world that began disenfranchising them and will continue to unless they change their expectations and understand what one character in Nomadland calls, “the great con” that they had been suckered into.
Now, it is important to note, I do not do the thinking for my students. I provide them the text, I provide the resources and an understanding of critical thinking and rhetorical analysis, and I allow them to come to their own conclusions. I welcome “college is worth it” as much as “college is not worth it” assuming their arguments and rhetorical execution is sound – the grade will be the same if its argued well.
So, what follows is my review of the book, my review of the film, and my resources and lessons I provided in the classroom to allow them to reflect on the world they have inherited because of our fiscal policy, our labor laws, the state of our world, and the state of what’s to come for them. They have had a bank manager in the classroom to speak with them, a variety of resources both for and against the material I have presented, and most of all, an empathetic analysis of the characters presented in Bruder’s excellent book. I used to teach Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, but thanks to the Community Read Project and the opportunity to study this book with my students, Ehrenreich’s guerilla journalism from a decade ago seems so…quaint.
Let’s get into it.
Jessica Bruder’s NOMADLAND is a stark wasteland of a book that has presented the reality of our nomadic elderly numbering in the tens of thousands. They move from city to city, job to job, making ends meet while they do their best cobbling together an existence from the RVs, campers, and vans they call home.
The book centers mainly around the author’s primary subject, Linda, but there are many others the book focuses on as Bruder moves from camp to camp, worksite to worksite. The overall concept is simple: lacking a reliable retirement because of our overreliance on the real estate market (and its subsequent crash) as well as an economy that generally devastates one partner over the other in cases of divorce in America, senior citizens have taken to the road to find work and a reliable stream of income while not tying themselves down to the real estate and marriages that have ruined their (and their children’s) lives. Many of our nomads are retired and work at campgrounds, amusement parks, farming operations, and most notably in this story, the warehouses of Amazon. In every job they face injury and in some cases death, all to continue the payments on their RVs and exorbitant RV camp rentals – and of course, that is when they pay and don’t have to face the law “stealth camping” by finding parking spots and working their way around the system.
Enter Bob Wells, the founder of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (a road conference for vandwellers and workampers) and the website of tips and tricks many people use as a primary resource, CheapRVLiving.com. Bob is a major resource to finding a safe place to sleep, a place to clean up, and even skills such as skirting the law and finding easy strategies to sanitary latrines in one’s own space. He is the godfather and teacher of road living, as well as one of the major preachers of common sense zoning and squatting laws – including running workshops on how to avoid needing a permanent address when applying for the new, completely real estate and permanent address-driven requirements of RealID.
This book is truly about freedom. The freedom to walk away from the confines of the establishments of our twentieth-century economy that “places property over people.” This book doesn’t shy away from the horrors of such living. As if poop was the main reason people may not want to live this lifestyle, it becomes abundantly clear that many elderly have a retirement plan that includes blowing their brains out in the desert if it comes to that. While some of our elderly brothers and sisters navigate the labyrinth of medicare and social security, the characters in this book have no qualms about blowing their RVs to smithereens with their pets alongside them or finding their way to a deserted spot and using websites that instruct them on the most painless method of becoming dry bones in the sand as nature reclaims them.
The book is a beautiful study, and several chapters are dedicated to the methodology and process of Bruder’s transformation into a trustworthy and capable reporter. At one point, it is clear that she is hardly able to give up this life not having to worry about how she is paying the next bill or where her next meal is coming from. It seems as a community, this community provides, and Bruder’s investment in the project becomes an exercise in understanding the estimated hundreds of thousands of Americans living as “houseless” around us every day.
It makes one wonder – is the problem living in vans and making do with as little as possible? That seems to make the characters in this book truly happy, and it is understandable. I guess the question is twofold: what is so great about the postwar vision of a good life, anyway, and why have we allowed corporations and CEOs for the past forty years to trample on their most valuable assets?
Chloé Zhao’s 2020 Academy Award-winning film based on the book is a bizarre, gorgeous triumph. In a way, I am not entirely sure which order it made the most sense to see the film. Should I have seen it before the book, or after? I am not sure there is an answer – the work of art itself is such a primal and strange slant on the reality of the book. Zhao’s direction and McDormand’s performance were both so beautifully deserving of the awards and nominations they garnered (not to mention the editing and cinematography deserved more credit than it got). The film presents McDormand as a nomad in a fictional version of events, with long, romantic single-shots that capture the essence of the beauty and harshness of the atmosphere and environment of the American Southwest and workplaces.
Where Zhao’s film really shines, and it is difficult to truly capture what happens in a way that makes sense, is that the characters from the book find their way into the film. These are the real people described and presented on the page, and their frank presentation on film captures the gritty reality of their situation in a way the book fails to. That isn’t to say the book doesn’t do it, but watching our subjects discuss taking their own lives in the same manner as in the book, driven by McDormand’s conversational journalistic style as a fictional version of one of the book’s subjects is quite the experience to behold. In a way, it reminded me of Man Bites Dog or Borat – the brutal yet laissez-faire attitude of watching something cruel and ridiculous unfold before you, and yet you are unable to do anything about it. I will argue that the violence is the same, in a way. But two of these films is a genius work of terrifying, satiric fiction parading and containing glimpses of nonfiction, and Nomadland is a work of terrifying nonfiction with glimpses of fiction, and not a slice of satire to be had. This is how our nomads, our elderly, live. What have we done to get here?
But the freedom. The freedom! The one silver lining, like a slice of pearl moonlight cutting through the clouds in the night sky, is that the one thing that we cannot imagine is the sense of freedom our protagonists feel. While the characters in the film have concern for McDormand’s character, and the real people in the book show concern for (you name the character), they wouldn’t change their lifestyle for anything. They ask for nothing. They give more than they take. They take only what they can carry.
Maybe we’re living the nightmare. The hedonistic treadmill. Isn’t peace and freedom all that we could possibly wish for?
Finally, My Unit Plan. Since I couldn’t find any resources online for this book, that meant I had to put the work into creating my own. My rationale and approach is explained above. I have added the files to my “Guides” section of my website above, and some of the elements are definitely appropriate for book clubs – but I primarily wanted to create a project-based, standards-aligned unit plan that I would share with the world for free.
There are chapter-by-chapter notes, chapter-by-chapter comprehension quizzes, vocabulary organized by chapter, activities organized by chapter, and a final project that involves a poetry chapbook and live reading in the community. We haven’t completed this portion yet, but it is coming soon and will be the major community read component for our surrounding towns. The unit plan is licensed under CREATIVE COMMONS BY-NC-SA.
Feel free to download it below or in the Guides section, and thanks for reading!
PDF: Nomadland Unit Plan by GarrettZeckerDotCom – Download
MS WORD: Nomadland Unit Plan by GarrettZeckerDotCom- Download
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Additional resources we used portions of that are not in the unit plan yet
Adam Baker TED Talk – “Sell your crap, pay your debt, do what you want.”
Parasite (2019) – Bong Joon-hoo
The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen
Wow this was SO helpful, I’m teaching parts of this book in my high school language arts class and will be using lots of the material you developed! Thank you for posting this!!
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