top of page



Independently Speaking

Publication Date 3-4-21

My wife and I watched “Nomadland” last week. It’s a good movie - good story, good acting, skillfully done. I’m just not sure what all the fuss is about, because so much of it seemed familiar to me.

Spoiler alert. The movie features a woman who lives in a small town with her husband, a place with only one industry. The factory closed, her husband died, and her town dried up. One day, she got in a van and went on the road...and just kept going.

Along the way she meets an assortment of people. Some are lost souls, some folks perfectly content living an unsettled life. To make ends meet, she works various jobs – packaging, loading sugar beets, cleaning toilets – whatever came her way. The back roads of America are an important part of the cast.

Watching the movie, we occasionally commented on the familiar sights: deserts, sugar beet piles, the Badlands of South Dakota, Wall Drug, a stormy ocean.

The people were familiar, too. They were a little scruffy, a little prickly, had some bad habits, made questionable choices and proudly displayed stubborn, unreasonable independence - just like a lot of people I’ve lived around my whole life.

Many members of the cast weren’t actors, a fact that made me remember my friend Joann, who would have been a great addition to the movie. In her 85 years, she outlived a couple husbands and then retired. She strived to live as cheaply as possible in order to stretch her money for painting and travel. She pulled a tiny Scamp trailer behind her car so she could go south every winter, as well as visit her children on the East and West coasts. She developed some good gimmicks, one of which was to pull into an RV park and pretend to be senile. Employees would park her camper and set things up for her, because they worried she might smack into something valuable. Joann had one of those smoker/whiskey drinker laughs, and when she told that story, it ended with an evil chuckle. I still miss that laugh.

What’s my point? I think one of the reasons the movie is popular is because much of it seems strange and exotic. Eighty percent of Americans live in urban areas now, and all the scenes and people I find so familiar to them seem unusual and amazing.

Maybe it’s something they want to see, but only in movies. Over the years, I’ve spent time with many urban residents. Our youngest child graduated from high school about twenty years ago, so our big old house is about half empty. I’ve always made a point of inviting urban-based people to visit. It’s not the Taj Mahal, but we have decent Wi-Fi, we live on the edge of a 250-acre wetland surrounded by prairie grass and wildflowers, and we have chickens, kittens and a large smelly dog – I think it’s a swell place to spend a weekend.

The fact that only one family has taken us up the invitation may illustrate a problem. I think urban people need to learn how a cow lot smells and the feel of a late fall harvest when snow is predicted with too many acres left to go. In the same way, people who live in the country need to learn how to ride a subway and order Thai food.

Having said that, I don’t think anyone can truly walk in someone else’s shoes. I’ll never know, really know, down in my bones, what it’s like to be Black. As I sit in the comfortable house my great-grandparents built, I can’t know what it’s like to be lonely, afraid, and broke, without resources and without hope. I can speak with conviction about immigration reform and secure borders, but I don’t know what it’s like to set off on a thousand mile walk to a country that doesn’t want me simply because it seems like the best of all possible options, just like I don’t know what it’s like to lose your job to someone who’ll take getting paid under the table for half of a living wage.

A movie, no matter how skillfully made, can’t teach us everything we need to know.

But it’s a start.

Copyright 2021 Brent Olson


bottom of page