The Four Winds (2021) – Kristin Hannah

Title:The Four Winds
Author:Kristin Hannah
Publisher/s:St. Martin’s Press/Pan Macmillan
Date published:2021
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Pan Macmillan kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

“Do you ever get tired of being strong?… Oh honey, of course.”

Kristin Hannah is a prolific writer, and she has, over the years, written a multitude of richly-plotted novels filled with harsh circumstances, and strong female characters. In The Four Winds, the author tackles the Great Depression in America with a superb style and compassion, with her unique grasp of the human condition, and with incredible insight into humanity’s ability to survive some of the harshest of conditions.

It’s 1921 and Elsa Wolcott is considered a spinster at 25, living with her parents and siblings in Texas. More than anything Elsa loves to read and has almost given up ever meeting someone who will love her. That is until she meets Rafe Martinelli, who is 18 and on his way to college. He’ll be the first Martinelli to change his stars, and he can’t wait to leave a life of farming behind. Elsa has been told her whole life just how much less of a beauty she is compared to her sisters – and for the first time, someone sees something to love in her.

When Elsa discovers that she is pregnant, her parents disown her and leave her at the Martinelli’s farm with nothing but her suitcase. Rafe’s parents, Rose and Tony Martinelli are devastated, not only because their son’s college plans have been ruined, but also because the girl that lands upon their doorstep is the last person they imagined would become their daughter-in-law.

It’s now 1934, and Elsa and Rafe Martinelli have two children – Loreda and Anthony ‘Ant’ – and for the last few years, they have been watching their farm rapidly die. The Great Depression in America, along with extreme drought and dust storms have affected their crops, their livestock, and the livelihood of people all over Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Businesses have closed, and those that remain are barely holding on to the little they have left, as they wade through piles of dust to move through their properties and through their homes.

When Rafe leaves his whole family behind in the middle of the night, Elsa, who has fallen in love with the land, and with her new family, is reluctant to leave too, despite the promises of jobs and a better life if they leave. But even Elsa can no longer protect her children from a life of dust, and she is forced to embark on a treacherous journey to California in the hopes of finding a new life, leaving behind Rose and Tony who will not abandon their home.

“A man. It was always about the men. They seem to think it meant nothing to cook and clean and bear children and tend gardens. But we women of the Great Plains worked from sunup to sundown, too, toiled on wheat farms until we were as dry and baked as the land we loved. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I swear I can still taste the dust.”

What the Martinelli’s soon discover is that California has become the escape for thousands of misplaced, jobless, and homeless people from across Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma – all searching for a way out of the Depression and the drought. The Martinelli’s soon find themselves living in a tent situated next to a ditch in the midst of a make-shift community made up of squatters and the now disenfranchised – people who once owned their own land and held reputable jobs, but who are now forced to beg for manual labor jobs and who have no other choice but to work for the barest of wages.

In the town of Welty Elsa and her family discover not only that they will have to work in the nearby cotton fields to survive, but that they (and their fellow tent-dwellers) are not particularly welcome in the nearby towns, are referred derogatorily as ‘Okies’ and are treated as subpar citizens in the streets, and as slaves on the surrounding (and flourishing) farms.

Whilst Elsa will do absolutely anything for her family, which includes cotton picking and still insisting her children attend school, Loreda, now 14, has discovered a group of communists who are trying desperately to help the farmworkers find their voices again, led by the mysterious Jack Valen. Loreda’s fiery spirit is both a bone of contention for her mother, but also a source of great pride for Elsa who had never learned the power of speaking up for herself.

“Courage is fear you ignore”

Kristin Hannah is at her best with historical fiction, and The Four Winds is clearly her most ambitious and her masterpiece, though some may dispute this in favor of The Nightingale. Regardless, this novel is a triumph. Within the choking confines of the Dust Bowl, and the hellish time that was The Great Depression, Hannah has created characters that are re-learning the notion of what family is – that it is an action rather than a status quo. This is a novel about the power of education, and female friendships, and about how our survival, and how our treatment of strangers is so often connected. This is a novel about love, and humanity’s ability to find and feel love even during the most impossible of times. It is also about the American Dream – or perhaps the America that so many believed would save them.

The Four Winds is a richly-plotted, sentimental novel of survival, self-worth, and the human condition – that is, the unspeakable conditions that humans sometimes find themselves in, and their innate ability to rise above that, no matter the cost, or perhaps because of it.

“The four winds have blown us here, people from all across the country, to the very edge of this great land, and now, at last, we make our stand, fight for what we know to be right. We fight for our American dream, that it will be possible again”.

Reviews for Kristin Hannah:

The Great Alone

Wild

Firefly Lane

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