Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Four Winds

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
2/2/21; 464 pages
St. Martin's Publishing Group

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah is a very highly recommended historical fiction epic set during the Great Depression.

It is 1921 and Elsa Wolcott lives in the Texas Panhandle. She never felt love from her family and longed for something more, certainly love, but also acceptance and a place to belong. At the age of 25, she decides to take a chance, leaving her home one night looking for... something, she meets Rafe Martinelli, a young 18 year-old man who is also restless and the two make a connection with each other. After a few late night clandestine meetings, Elsa is pregnant, her parents throw her out, and she and Rafe are married. She lives on the Martinelli homestead, learns to cook, clean and farm, and to love her new in-laws, Tony and Rosa.

Then the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression hit the Great Plains. It is 1934. Foreclosures are rampant, crops are nonexistent, people are starving, livestock is dying, and the land is blowing away without rain. Elsa and Rafe have two surviving children, Loreda, 12, and Anthony (Ant), 7. Rafe, who has becoming increasingly distant and a hard drinker, leaves one night for California, abandoning his family. The Martinelli's struggle on until a decision must be made. Elsa takes Loreda and Ant, with Tony and Rosa's support, and they head to California to look for steady work and a better life. But California is not the land of milk and honey and the dream is a nightmare. The immigrants, or Okies, are discriminated against and taken advantage of, making their lives even more precarious.

Following in the tradition of Steinbeck's classic, The Grapes of Wrath, the historical time and setting in The Four Winds has been thoroughly researched and masterfully presented. Hannah does an excellent job setting her novel in the time period and describing the hardships they endured. The plot is well paced, covering the hardships in Texas and California and the narrative is compelling. I was engrossed in the story, both in Texas and California. There was no good choice during these desperate times and the whole gritty reality is clearly presented in totality as we follow one woman and her children. The backbreaking work for very low pay as migrant workers in California was heartbreaking and the treatment of these Americans who were just trying to take care of their families was despicable.

Elsa is, ultimately, a strong woman, but she has so much self-doubt and self-loathing that she has to overcome a lifetime of self-debasement in order to become the strong woman she is in the end. Loreda is a horrid teen, but also changes, becoming a mature, confident young woman after she experiences and takes note of the disparity of the treatment of people. When she is told, "They call you names because they don't want to think of you as like them" it was a truth that holds on today when people from the Great Plains are still called disparaging names and put down by people from California, as well as the east coast, with no acknowledgment that we are all Americans and, in light of the pandemic, we all need jobs.

Many of us who had ancestors live through this time period have heard the stories of hardship and sacrifice they endured living through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Some basic things they did during this time as a matter of course have survived right up through my generation. (Washing and reusing all plastic containers, foil, saving anything that might be useful for something.) But we were also taught to work hard without complaint and to put family first. It is a pleasure to read such a well-written novel that shows the self-sacrifice and determination of those who survived the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, in spite of the forces against them.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of St. Martin's Publishing Group

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