The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah is a masterful fictional account of one of the most devastating times in our history. We see this period through the eyes of the Martinelli family who have a sizable piece of land in Texas. Life is good for many years for the family until there was a drought and many farm families paid a high price for the way in which they had been farming. I am sure many of you have read other accounts of the horrors of what became known as the Dust Bowl. It’s obvious that Hannah has done a significant amount of research on this time when “Four years of drought, combined with the Great Depression, had brought the Great Plains to its knees.” And a great migration began to California to find work and build a better life.
Equally interesting is the story of the Martinelli family. Rose and Tony originally settled the farm. When their son, Rafe, meets Elsa, she is so desperate to be loved that the inevitable happens. Rafe is engaged to someone else, but when his parents learn that Elsa is pregnant, they insist that he marry her. Elsa has always seen herself as too plain and unattractive to have a man interested in her, and suddenly she is about to be married into a family she doesn’t know at all. Her family basically disowns her when they feel she has disgraced them and then is marrying into an Italian family. Even when Rafe takes off, Elsa remains part of the family.
Much of the novel is devoted to Elsa and her two children as they finally decide to take their chances in California where she is sure she can find work. Even just getting there is a challenge in itself. Part of the last leg of the journey takes them across the desert which they do at night. I remember on a drive across country years later crossing the desert was anxiety producing, making sure that we had plenty of water.
However, California is not the land of milk and honey that they had anticipated, and their lives there are so hard. At one point, Elsa works a ten-hour day at a woman’s home cleaning for which she is reluctantly paid forty cents. All three of them even the very young Ant along with his older sister, Loreda have to pick cotton just to stay alive. What struck me about the makeshift tent cities that sprang up is that even under dire circumstances, a community is formed and people share and take care of each other.
The Four Winds is a story of heartache, backbreaking struggles just to stay alive and strength and bravery to make a difference. Elsa doesn’t see herself as brave and yet when bravery is needed, she finds it within herself even though the cost is great. Her view of herself is changed by seeing herself through the eyes of a man who sees her as beautiful and strong and her daughter’s pride in all her mother has done to keep the family afloat and to stand up to cotton growers and other big farmers who are mistreating and underpaying those harvesting their crops.
The Four Winds is published in hardcover by St. Martin’s Press and retails for $28.99.