Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Four Winds - Kristin Hannah

Summary: My land tells its story if you listen.  The story of our family.

Texas, 1921.  A time of abundance.  The Great War is over, the bounty of the land is plentiful, and America is on the bring of a new and optimistic era.  But for Elsa Wolcott, deemed too old to marry in a time when marriage was a woman's only option, the future seems bleak.  Until the night she meets Rafe Martinelli and decides to change the direction of her life.  With her reputation in ruins, there is only one respectable choice: marriage to a man she barely knows.

By 1934, the world has changed: Millions are out of work, and drought has devastated the Great Plains.  Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as crops fail and water dries up and the earth cracks open.  Dust storms roll relentlessly across the plains.  Everything on the Martinelli farm is dying, including Elsa's tenuous marriage; each day is a desperate battle against nature and a fight to keep her children alive. 

In this uncertain and perilous time, Elsa -- like so many of her neighbors -- must make an agonizing choice; Fight for the land she loves or leave it behind and go west, to California, in search of a better life for her family.

The Four Winds is a rich, sweeping novel that stunningly brings to life the Great Depression and the people who lived through it -- the harsh realities that divided a nation and the enduring battle between the haves and the have-nots.  A testament to hope, resilience, and the strength of the human spirit to survive adversity, 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.  (Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

My Review: The Four Winds begins in 1921 and follows Elsa Wolcott, from her years as a 25-year-old 'spinster,' demeaned and rejected by her own family, to her life as a wife and mother to two young children in the 1930s, farming the Great Plains during dust storms and drought, and through the Dustbowl migration to California, where she hopes to be able to provide for her children.  In the work camps of the San Joaquin valley, Elsa slams headlong into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, that threatens to break her spirit. Eventually, she makes a hard choice, exchanging one kind of risk for another, in an attempt to change her family's fate.

The Four Winds is a testament to the strength of women, beautifully rendered in the characters of Elsa and Loreda Wolcott.  Elsa is all the things she thinks she isn't -- strong, brave, amazing -- a heroine for the ages.  It's ironic that for much of the book she feels so unloved because I loved her from the very beginning, in her self-bobbed hair and handmade dress, running out on her horrid parents.  I ached as she endured the loneliness that comes from a distant husband, the disdain of a teenage daughter, and unimaginable hardship, all with a quiet, indomitable strength that became increasingly evident as the story progressed.  The evolution of Elsa is truly phenomenal and one my favorite moments in the book is when she comes to terms with her identity as a mother. If any two sentences could properly convey the meaning of the entire book it would be these: She wasn't an 'I.'  She was a 'we'.  

Elsa's daughter Loreda is gutsy and ferocious, with dreams far bigger than those found on the farm Initially, she's rather unlikable and disrespectful to her mother, who she blames for her father's unfortunate choices and sees her as the antithesis of everything she wants to be.  Heaven knows, I wanted to smack her sometimes because of her fiery insolence. However, as the family's situation deteriorates, Loreda begins to shoulder some of the burden and sees her mother through new eyes.  Unlike Elsa, who tend to keep her head down and push forward, Loreda is the kind of young woman who digs in her heels and stands up to injustice, regardless of the consequences.  Though the two women still butt heads, they are both exceptional in their own way.  

The Four Winds is simply spectacular, incredibly well-researched, and brings our nation's history to life in meaning, relevant ways.  I learned so much about the Great Depression, the erosion of the Great Plains, the migration of families devastated by the Dustbowl Era, the daily life of farmworkers in California, and the classist politics of the region.  One of the most eye opening aspects of the book was the author's description of the prejudice and discrimination face by dustbowl migrants, the rigors of agricultural work, and what it was like for those 'lucky enough' to find employment in the work camps, trapped in a system designed to send them into a debt spiral.  The Four Winds also touches on a variety of themes that are relevant to the current news cycle, raising interesting issues about migration and immigration, worker's rights, women's rights, political corruption, and the systematic subjugation of the lower class.  I have heard certain terms my whole life, but the historical aspects of this book connected a lot of dots for me, put my own hardships into perspective, and helped me see and understand things on a grander scale.

As far as criticism goes, I don't have much to cover.  There were a few sensitive reader issues which you can read about at the bottom of this review, but my biggest 'complaint' is that this book was emotionally hard to read.  Not only does bad stuff happen to good people, the ever-changing dynamic between mother and daughter sometimes hit a little too close to home. That's pretty much it, though.  

Overall, The Four Winds is a historically fascinating novel, riveting, relevant, and a glorious tribute to the strength of women, mothers in particular.  Major events do inform the plot, but the real essence of the story is found in the subtle, poignant and compelling moments that hit dead center.  Everything moves at a slower pace, but the payoff is well worth the wait. Brace yourself for a story that is both heartrending and exhilarating with a brief but tender romantic thread and an epilogue that is all-the-good-things. 

My Rating:  4.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some innuendo and profanity (English and Italian).  Some brief sexual situations, relatively non-graphic.

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