Frances McDormand and director Chloe Zhao on the set of Nomadland

Frances McDormand and director Chloe Zhao on the set of Nomadland. Image: Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios

Best Picture, a historic Best Director win and Best Actress for Frances McDormand: the clear winner of Sunday night’s Oscars was Nomadland. Chloé Zhao’s remarkable film follows Fern (McDormand), a former teacher and widow who, left bereft and unemployed, buys a van and travels around the American mid-West in the late Noughties.

The three Academy Awards add to an extensive mantelpiece-full of gongs for Zhao, who wrote, produced, directed and edited the film. In the process, she’s become only the second woman to ever win a Best Director Oscar and Golden Globe awards – and the first of Asian descent.

Before it was a film, Nomadland was a book - Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century – by journalist Jessica Bruder, who reported on older Americans who had turned to a life on the road having lost their jobs and homes due to the Great Recession. But the themes of loss, grief, transience and carving out a different kind of life have long inspired novels and non-fiction. Here are just a few examples:

The Lauras by Sara Taylor (2017)

Taylor’s sophomore novel gripped readers with its story of an unconventional mother-child relationship. Together, non-binary 13-year-old Alex and their mother Ma roam from state to state, inspired by a geography held by Ma’s childhood memory. In truck-stops in Georgia and Mississippi fishing towns, Alex attempts to define their personhood as their mother goes in search of women who helped to raise her. A book that proves that the journey is usually more important than the destination.

The Stopping Places by Damian Le Bas (2018)

Zhao worked with, and cast, dozens of members of America’s nomad community for Nomadland, among them Charlene Swankie, Linda May and Bob Wells – people in their sixties and seventies who have found a new way to live in transient communities, in vans and on the road. Britain’s Romany community has different origins and roots, but a similar understanding of what it is to live on the move, as Damian Le Bas documents in his quest to explore his Traveller ancestry. Le Bas travels around Romany communities in a transit van to inform this fascinating book.

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

Before there was the Great Recession, there was the Great Depression – and one of its chief chroniclers was John Steinbeck. The Novel Prize-winner set much of his work in that hungry first half of the 20th century, but it was Grapes of Wrath, for which Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize, that best captured the desperation of thousands of families travelling West in search of work, home and a new life. Steinbeck was no stranger to the road himself. His 1962 travelogue, Travels with Charley: In Search of America set a path that Jessica Bruder would later follow – 10,000 miles across the US in which he meets farmers, sailors, migrant potato-pickers and trailer park-inhabitants. All accompanied by his poodle, Charley.

In America by Geert Mak (2015)

Fifty years later, Dutch journalist Geert Mak decided to follow in Steinbeck’s footsteps – in a decidedly literal way. Mak sets his itinerary by the path documented in Travels with Charley in an attempt to find out what has changed – and what has remained the same – in America since Steinbeck’s trip. The result is a book that is more about modern America than it is the great author, with warts-and-all depictions of dating culture, the Bible Belt, environmental disdain and drug abuse of a post-Recession, pre-Trump country: the very setting of Nomadland.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (2019)

Swap South Dakota for St Ives and the themes in Raynor Winn’s runaway bestseller are on a par with Nomadland. When bailiffs turn up at the door of the family farm Winn and her husband Moth have put their lives towards, they decide that walking is the only solution to their homelessness, illness and unemployment. Over the next three months, as summer turns into Autumn, they kindle a new understanding of home and the really important things in life while walking the 630-mile long Salt Path between Minehead, in Somerset, and Poole in Dorset.

On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane by Emily Guendelsberger (2019) 

As a woman in her sixties with no fixed address, Nomadland’s Fern finds it difficult to get work, eventually ending up in an Amazon warehouse. This particularly contemporary nod to late capitalism’s gig economy is explored more thoroughly in Guendelsberger’s arresting investigation into America’s culture of low-wage work. The author’s research was thorough: she worked for Amazon ahead of Christmas, in call centres and at McDonalds: situations all too familiar to those Nomads for whom retirement was, originally, the plan.

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