books, reviews

Book Review: The Four Winds – Kristen Hannah

From Kristin Hannah, the number-one bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone, comes a powerful American epic about love and heroism and hope, set during the Great Depression, a time when the country was in crisis and at war with itself, when millions were out of work and even the land seemed to have turned against them.

“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 brink of a new and optimistic era. But for Elsa Wolcott, deemed too old to marry in a time when marriage is 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 ruin, 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 us as 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.

My thoughts: I was sent a copy of this a good while ago, and for some reason never got around to it until now, so apologies to the PR at Macmillan who posted it out to me. I shouldn’t have waited so long to read it.

Elsa is an incredible character, her enormous strength sees her through cruelties and hardships that might crush someone else. From her horrible parents who call her ugly and keep her basically locked inside the house from childhood, only to abandon her when she needs them most, to the feckless husband who takes off one night leaving his whole family to struggle on during a horrific drought.

Elsa’s relationship with her in-laws is warm and loving, they’re a real family with none of the frost and casual cruelty of her parents and sisters. Poor and living hand to mouth on land that is slowly dying from the lack of rain, they still find ways to smile together and support one another. I will admit I cried when they have to put their horse to sleep. Even working animals are part of a family, not just pets, and the heartbreak in the scene is incredibly moving. The sadness of their parting when Elsa has to leave is also truly terrible.

Knowing she has to find cleaner air for her son so he doesn’t die of silicosis, she drives the family’s beat up old truck from Texas to California, with only her children for company, hoping to find work and a safe home. Instead there is more misery and hardship in the sunshine. Like thousands of other desperate people who fled their homes in the Great Depression looking for hope, there’s little work to be had on the West Coast, and only make shift shanty towns to call home.

Despite this Elsa makes the best of it, sending her children to school, working in fields picking fruit and cotton, living in a tent. She makes friends and even, perhaps, finds happiness and love with union organiser Jack.

The hardship familiar from the works of authors like John Steinbeck is on every page, but with the focus on a woman alone in a time where a husband was considered essential. Elsa is resourceful and brave, a real survivor. When the camp is flooded out and they lose all of their possessions and money, my heart really broke for them. Just as things might finally be improving, and then the aftermath, the terrible losses people endured in these grim make-shift homes, the prejudice from all sides – even hospitals who won’t treat them or deliver a baby. It was shocking to read.

The last few chapters were equally heart-rending, as Jack and his fellow unionists attempt to get the farm workers onside and stand up against the cruelty of men like Mr Welty – lowering wages to the point where no one can afford to live on them. The riot and that terrible, terrible moment, I had to put the book down for a minute.

All of Elsa’s hopes and dreams are in her children – Lareda and Ant, all of her own yearning – for college, for escape, are in them. She insists they go to school, even though other children are working with their parents in the fields, is miserable when they join her in cotton picking, but determined that the future will hold more for them. That they will not have to struggle their whole lives to survive. It’s an incredibly powerful feeling that moves the whole novel along.

The book is so full of love and yearning and struggle. Elsa is the heart of it all, and it is her incredible desire to live and for her family to live a better life that propels her forward, even at the toughest moments, even when her heart is breaking. She never gives up hope and in her daughter, that hope finds a place. A powerful, moving and quite extraordinary read. I cannot believe I let this sit on the shelf for so long.

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