“Epic and transporting, a stirring story of hardship and love … Majestic and absorbing.” — USA Today
“A timely novel highlighting the worth and delicate nature of Nature itself.” — Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing
The Four Winds (St. Martin’s) by Kristin Hannah is a sweeping saga of a family’s struggle to survive set against the backdrop of The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of America’s Plains states. At the heart of the story is Elsa Wolcott, a tall, awkward girl who suffered rheumatic fever as a teenager. She believed she was never beautiful, smart or strong enough to earn the love of her wealthy Texan family, so she withdrew into the world of books.
At 25 years of age, Elsa boldly cuts her long hair, purchases a bolt of red silk at the General Store and fashions it into a slinky dress. The year is 1921, and she’s unaware that her rebellious acts would change her life. The little red dress leads to an illicit love affair, being disowned by her family, and a shotgun wedding to Rafe Martinelli, the shiftless son of immigrant wheat farmers.
Years of drought ravage the Martinellis’ farm, leaving Elsa, Rafe, their children, Loreda and Anthony, and Rafe’s parents near the point of starvation. When Rafe abandons them, and the storms grow deadly, Elsa and her children must decide whether to stay and fight for the land they love or leave. But after Anthony contracts dust pneumonia, they face one heartbreaking truth — they must leave to save him.
They embark on a dangerous journey to California in search of “milk and honey,” fresh air and a new life. Unfortunately, they become part of the millions desperately escaping the Depression and the Dust Bowl who live hand-to-mouth, pick crops, receive government relief, and are the objects of prejudice and violence in the San Joaquin Valley.
HANNAH’S MASTERFUL PORTRAIT OF AMERICAN RESILIENCE
Hannah is a master at capturing the essence of historical events and developing strong women protagonists who live and breathe in that time period. In The Nightingale, Hannah transported us to war-torn France during WWII, where she examined the complex relationship between two sisters with opposing political ideologies. The Four Winds is a story about the delicate dynamics of a mother/daughter relationship burdened by abandonment, poverty, and political and ecological tragedies.
As in The Nightingale, one woman seeks to be an agent of change while fear paralyzes the other into complacency. They fight as mother and daughter do, but Elsa and Loreda draw strength from each other to face the dust storms, the filthy migrant camp, starvation and life as downtrodden migrant workers. Together, they embark on a poignant quest of survival and hope in a time and place of death, destruction and prejudice. As Loreda matures, she realizes that one person can change the world. She comes to view her mother as a warrior, willing to protect her family, her friends and her ideals at any cost. Meanwhile, Elsa discovers that motherhood has made her braver than she ever dreamed possible. Both women realize that their love matters most.
FEELING PRESENT TIES TO HISTORIC ECONOMIC STRIFE
One cannot read The Four Winds without making connections to the current pandemic and economic downturn. In her novel, Hannah paints a depressing picture of hopelessness in the breadlines, government relief, abandoned businesses, foreclosures and forces beyond any one person’s control — and the helplessness Elsa and her family feel with the loss of control over their fates and the American Dream. They once experienced financial comfort and never imagined being forced to subsist on government subsidies to survive.
Today, we face identical issues — food banks, unemployment greater than during the Depression, evictions, political unrest and isolation. Like Elsa, former gainfully employed people who’ve never requested government help must rely on it for their family’s survival. Just as Hannah’s characters hide from the dust storms destroying their farms, we’re hiding from an invisible microorganism inhabiting the air we breathe. In the 1930s, crop rotation, irrigation and science restored the farmland, and “The New Deal” restored the economy. We are fortunate to live in a century when science and technology can eradicate a global pandemic … and soon, we hope.
The Four Winds is about a country in crisis, and how one woman thrives amidst the chaos. There are lessons to be learned from history, and Elsa’s bravery in The Four Winds inspires us to draw strength and learn from the past. We will survive these dark days and we will ultimately succeed if we work together.