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.