Summary: 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.
Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
When I was in grade school I read a book about a girl surviving the Dust Bowl era, and I hated that book so much that I swore off any interest in that specific period again (and yes, that includes never reading The Grapes of Wrath, much to my husband’s dismay). In May, I picked up The Four Winds as my birthday bonus pick for Book of the Month. I’d heard so many good things about it, was vaguely familiar with Hannah’s work, and figured 20+ years was enough to get over any negative feelings I had about that part of history.
So why the average rating? Here’s the thing. Kristin Hannah is a beautiful writer. She knows how to create intricate characters and tug at your heartstrings and maybe even make you cry a little bit. But the Dust Bowl is still an extremely dull, depressing topic. I loved all of the characters, I felt their grief and heartache alongside them. I was rooting for Elsa and her family throughout the novel, but I had this constant niggling thought that just maybe this book could have been about half the length and still gotten the point across.
Like I said, the Dust Bowl is extremely harrowing to read about. It takes place during the Great Depression, where farmers are rapidly losing their livelihoods due to an extreme drought. Eventually the dry period causes severe dust storms, which killed people, their crops, and their livestock. Hundreds of thousands of people migrated to the west coast for a better life. There were a handful of times when I stopped reading mid-paragraph, because it seemed like such an impossible act. My brain couldn’t imagine surviving a decade of being beaten down so badly, and while I was annoyed with Elsa’s stubbornness and her initial refusal to move her family out of harm’s way, I also respected her for trying to make their lives continue as normally as possible despite every single force working against them.
There’s certainly an element of pity for Elsa, after watching her survive heartbreak after heartbreak. She never truly fit in with her family, who abandoned her and forced her to leave when she fell pregnant out of wedlock. Years later, her husband ran out on the family, and she was forced to not only raise her kids by herself, but also navigate the trek across the country and create a new life for them singlehandedly. She was repeatedly beaten down and broken, but she refused to give up so she could make the most for her children.
I adored Elsa for that, and I loved the relationship she had with her children. Hannah incorporates normal, everyday fights for Elsa with her children, scolding them for skipping school, arguing with her daughter about her indecision to move west. And at the heart of it all is her undying love for them. Elsa scarifies so much of herself, her health, her happiness, to ensure her children always have enough to eat, that they have some type of roof over their heads, that they’re hurting infinitely less than they have to. She carries their burdens, their pain, their anger and confusion over such troubling times. That’s really what it comes down to: Elsa is an incredible mother. The Four Winds isn’t so much about the Dust Bowl as it is about a mother’s love for her children.
We fought, we struggled, we hurt each other, so what? That’s what love is, I think. It’s all of it. Tears, anger, joy, struggle. Mostly, its durable. It lasts. Never once in all of it – the dust, the drought, the fights with you – never once did I stop loving you or Ant or the farm.