About the Book
Texas, 1934. Millions are out of work and a drought has broken the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as the crops are failing, the water is drying up, and dust threatens to bury them all. One of the darkest periods of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl era, has arrived with a vengeance.
In this uncertain and dangerous time, Elsa Martinelli—like so many of her neighbors—must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or go west, to California, in search of a better life. The Four Winds is an indelible portrait of America and the American Dream, as seen through the eyes of one indomitable woman whose courage and sacrifice will come to define a generation.
464 pages (hardcover)
Published on February 2, 2021
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I’ve been fascinated by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression for a long, long time. Not only is it an interesting era steeped in tragedy, but there’s an entire culture surrounding it that I find really compelling in that dark sort of way I like things to be. I’m about to write a series of books highly, highly influenced by these events, so I’ve been on the lookout for novels or nonfiction about this sort of thing. On one random wander through Audible, I found The Four Winds, which was exactly what I wanted, and a whole lot more engrossing than I’d expected it to be.
I don’t read a whole lot of fiction. Usually what I read is either fantasy, science fiction, or historical nonfiction, and I’ve never read a book set against the explosive, broiling backdrop of the Dust Bowl, made only worse due to the Great Depression. Part of the reason I was so entranced by this novel is due to the fact the author obviously put a lot of effort into her historical research. There were a ton of details thrown in that I didn’t know before. For example, the storms they would encounter that blew the dust around were so big, so monstrous they’d basically block out the sun. They destroyed houses. They were forces of nature. For some reason, in all my life learning about this stuff, I didn’t realize the storms that blew all this dust around were actual STORMS, dark and brooding, unpredictable and destructive. In my head, I’ve always equated it to just a constant, dry blowing. This book really took that little myth my head had created and dropkicked it.
Set in this quaint North Texas town, Hannah drops us into a world steeped in the era. Technology is changing, the role of women is shifting. The economy on the local level is booming, largely due to the fact our protagonist, one Elsa Martinelli, is born into a family who rules the local roost, so to speak. Her father is a well-to-do businessman in the area, her mother is the perfect wife, and her sisters are likewise exactly what they should be. For one reason or another, Elsa just doesn’t quite fit. Something about her is just off enough to keep her from being the docile perfect woman, easy to marry off, and easy to ignore. Elsa is turning into an old maid. So, does what young women do, and in a desire to fit somewhere, to belong, she finds herself pregnant by the son of an Italian immigrant who owns a farm somewhere up north, near the Oklahoma border. Her parents drop her off at this man’s house, informing them that basically, congratulations, she’s your problem now.
Her family is just swell. /sarcasm font
Elsa is a fascinating character to follow. I was nearly as entranced by her story as I was about the story of the changing world around her. She’s quiet, keeps her head down, and works hard, and yet her observations of the changing world and her place in it are nothing short of compelling. Furthermore, she has this stubbornness that keeps her rooted in place, determined, and incredibly protective even when it seems like the world is falling apart around her. When everything else crumbles, it seems as though Elsa is the only person left standing, a mountain in her own right.
I don’t read a lot of books about mothers and children, and I must say, I lament the fact I don’t read more stories about these relationships, because the bond between parents and their children is every bit as tense and fraught with drama as any other kind of relationship. Elsa’s love for her children can move mountains, and determines so much of her life, whether it is sticking it out where she’s at for as long as possible or desperately migrating across the country in the hope of finding a job. When her husband disappears, it’s Elsa’s love for her children that sees her through that tragedy. When her son is sick and in the hospital due to breathing in too much dust, the frantic run to get him medical care was something I felt in my bones. Her relationship, her potent, often quiet love for family was so powerful, it almost became a character all its own.
The writing was amazing, and the story was perfectly paced, with enough focused on plot and on the historical details and character development to make it all feel like it worked in perfect harmony. The Four Winds is full of quiet moments of contemplation where big decisions are made in near silence, and life changes completely at the drop of a hat. Unpredictable, is what one could easily call this time, and yet Elsa might be one of the most predictable characters I’ve ever read. However, I think the story needed that. Someone stalwart and unyielding in the center of all this relentless, unforgiving change and tragedy.
I learned a lot by reading The Four Winds, not just about the Dust Bowl, which came to blazing life under Kristin Hannah’s deft hand, but about the nature of family as well. Fantastically written and intensely researched, this book blew me away. It was exactly what I was looking for. All these weeks later, I still find it haunting the corridors of my mind.