In the early decades of the twentieth century, a number of my ancestors packed up and moved to the hot, scrubby part of Texas southwest of Corpus Christi. One of these ancestors was my great-great-great grandfather, Jesse Solomon Myers.
South Texas was sold to Sol (and many others) as a farmer’s paradise: the weather was mild, the land was fertile, and all a man had to do to grow an exceptional crop was put the seeds in the ground and wait until it was time to harvest.
All of this was, of course, a lie.
Sol came from pioneer stock, and he was accustomed to moving back and forth across the Texas-Oklahoma line with his family in search of opportunity. So, when South Texas proved to be a disappointment and the onset of the Great Depression put the final nail in the coffin of Sol’s finances, my great-great-great grandfather did what he did best: he went road-trippin’.
Sol built a small house on top of an old Ford chassis. He went down to Mexico and bought a pair of oxen. And then, in the company of his wife Mary Jane, he set out for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933.
It was an incredibly slow trip; the couple sold postcards of their journey to anyone who would buy them to fund their forward progress. And, somewhere in the wilds of Oklahoma, Mary Jane died suddenly, leaving Sol to travel on alone.
While we have no evidence that Sol actually made it to Chicago, family legend says that he did attend the World’s Fair and was even somewhat famous at the event because of his unique mode of transportation. Supposedly, he even went up on a plane ride with Wiley Post.
Sol was on my mind a lot as I read Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, which follows the ups and downs of a group of Americans — many of them in their fifties, sixties, and seventies — who lost or gave up their homes as a result of the Great Recession or some other personal catastrophe.
These “houseless” Americans live in vans, RVs, buses…anything with wheels. They spend their days moving from one seasonal job to the next; they work as camp hosts, as beet pickers, as runners in Amazon warehouses. Some of them are committed to their freedom, to never having to pay rent again. And some of them — like Linda May, the woman who is at the heart of Nomadland — dream of having a settled place to call home again.
Bruder points out that people like my great-great-great grandfather were able to give up their traveling ways after the Great Depression ended and go back to living “normally” in a house. What’s different about the “houseless” of today is that they suspect they will never live in permanent housing again: making rent is too difficult, and choosing a roof over food or medicine isn’t an option. The note of uneasiness that winds through the book comes from an idea that several of the “houseless” give voice to: not only is this the new normal for many Americans, but things are likely going to get worse.
When I finished Nomadland, I was left feeling that America — as a society and an idea — has let many of these people down. They had jobs and savings and homes up until 2008; they’d done everything they were supposed to do. But, when the Great Recession knocked them down, they had no way to get back up. How do we live with ourselves for failing to find employment for those who want it, for failing to pay a fair wage and provide a sound safety net, for declaring that someone is “too old” to work?