Nomadland Unsplash

Nomadland tells the story of a widowed factory worker who buys a van and travels the country to find work. 

The Golden Globe award-winning film Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances McDormand, is based on a novel by author/journalist Jessica Bruder, which details a society of self-declared "workampers," who work around the country in nomadic groups.

But the story has ties to Columbia too. Local readers will recognize the title, as it was the Daniel Boone Regional Library One Read choice for 2019.

The book

One Read is a community wide reading program sponsored by the library, which selects one book every year that "addresses themes, issues and topics that will encourage and sustain spirited discussion," according to the One Read website. For anyone unfamiliar with the selection process for the program, books are brought forward by the public in the winter, a reading panel brings the list down to ten, and two to three books are then selected for a public vote. 

Lauren Williams is the Adult & Community Services Manager at the library, as well as being a co-chair of the One Read program and a member of the reading panel, and was able to talk a little more about and One Read. 

"What we’re looking for at its most basic, is a book that we can enjoy discussing and learning from for an entire month," she says. "A book that has several different topics for discussion." Williams went on to describe how some books make the top ten but are really about a single issue, which makes it difficult to try and schedule a whole month of events around. 

Some of the themes mentioned by Williams that may have stood out in the eyes of the reading panel included the fallout around the 2008 recession, the tiny house/tiny living movement and off the grid living.

Jessica Bruder author visit

Jessica Bruder, author of Nomadland, spoke at Columbia College in 2019. 

"(Reading Nomadland) gave us an opportunity to talk about all kinds of things, both very personal and local, but also broader economic issues that people all over the country are going through," says Williams. And while Williams has not seen the film just yet, she hopes that the movie portrays the characters as complex characters like in the novel, not just as characters portrayed simply to be pitied or conversely, seen just as heroes. 

The highlight of the month's events was undoubtedly Jessica Bruder’s visit, including a reception for the author at Orr Street Studios and a speech she gave at Columbia College. During her talk, Bruder discussed the power of having an entire community read and focus on a book, talking about the kind of influence a program like One Read can have in communities.

"You could tell she was very curious about other people, so you could tell that’s one of the ways she was able to become close to her subjects in the book," says Williams. 

The movie

The film version of Nomadland is critically acclaimed. It recently won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama, and director Chloé Zhao took home the title of Best Director.

In the movie which is now available on Hulu, Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widowed factory worker who is left without a job when her factory closes in Empire, Nevada. This prompts her to sell her worldly possessions and purchase a van to travel the country for work, ending up as a seasonal worker at an Amazon warehouse. Throughout this journey she meets communities of people living the same way that she has decided to live.

When talking about what potentially motivates people to live this way, Williams mentioned how there is a lack of a safety net for people in situations like Fern’s, with no job security or social security, touching back to the themes mentioned earlier surrounding the recession.

Steve Weinberg, a professor emeritus of the Missouri School of Journalism, hosted a book discussion for Nomadland during the One Read program. Weinberg had known about Bruder and her work in immersive journalism for quite some time, following the story that would eventually become Nomadland when it was a cover story for Harper's Magazine. When comparing the book to the movie, Weinberg says a big difference between the two is the absence of Bruder as a character in the movie.

Weinberg also says that the workplace conditions of the workampers are portrayed as notably more difficult in the book than in the movie, with "so many people being desperate for work." Although Weinberg does not want to discourage anyone from seeing the film, he thinks that the book is a far more complete look into the lives of the nomads.

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