Fern, the van-dwelling main character played by Frances McDormand in this year’s Oscars champ Nomadland, is not once mentioned in the book of that name – a 2017 piece of non-fiction by the investigative journalist Jessica Bruder.

The reason for this is simple: Fern is a fictional creation of Chloe Zhao’s screenplay. But she is also real to the bone. The pages of this book gave birth to her, as a distilled embodiment of a modern nomadic ethos. Bruder spent three years and travelled more than 15,000 miles to research the situation of America’s "houseless" poor – many of them low-paid, elderly, itinerant workers moving from job to job as the season dictates. They reject the word "homeless", these owners of homes on wheels. They had their savings wiped out by the credit crunch, or found themselves foreclosed upon when their properties plummeted in value, or can no longer keep up with their rent or taxes thanks to America’s ever-widening wage gap. Or all of the above.

The book’s focal figure is Linda May, a 64-year-old grandmother living out of a second-hand Jeep she calls the "Squeeze Inn". Like Fern, she’s employed for some months of the year as part of the nationwide Amazon initiative CamperForce. Linda and her coworkers are encouraged to show up in their mobile homes for the manic holiday period, netting about $11 an hour for their pains, then they roll on down the road. The "recreation" part of RV doesn’t enter the equation. This is gruelling, injury-prone toil, as a vulnerable workforce bend, stretch and cover many miles of floor a day while scanning and sorting.

The book’s specificity about every battered camper author Jessica Bruder meets, in the context of an economically grim decade, is its strength
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Zhao’s film didn’t escape criticism for glossing over the ugly realities of this labour, in its restless, undeniably beautiful quest to capture the consolations of the open road. That’s why reading the direct account of Bruder, who gained employment at Amazon’s infamously dangerous facility in Haslet, Texas, is perhaps a necessary complement to watching Nomadland. Her description of dealing with Kivas, the robot "sherpas" that eccentrically malfunction and are despised by their human colleagues, is darkly hilarious.

Van sales shot up in the years after 2008, as repossessions happened in their millions
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The book also discusses the "desolate endgame" of these superannuated travellers. "My long-term healthcare plan is bleached bones in the desert," says the mordant Bob Wells. Bruder knows the literary precedents for this diaspora of America’s poor, and more than once invokes John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. But this book’s specificity about every battered camper Bruder meets, in the context of an economically grim decade, is its strength.

Van sales shot up in the years after 2008, as repossessions happened in their millions. Having sampled this life as a three-year experiment, Bruder became more alert to all the clues around her: spotting these homes, with their blackened windows, clustered in Walmart parking lots, or wherever their owners can pass unnoticed – even in her old neighbourhood of Brooklyn. "An invisible city, hidden in plain sight."

Inside every vehicle, a Fern, hoping there’s no badge on whoever knocks next.

The Daily Telegraph

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