Reading this novel in the shadow of what the last year has been like, there’s a sense of deja-vu. Granted, the last year hasn’t quite been the caliber of The Great Depression, but there was a sense of the bottom falling out of all that we were certain about in the world.
The Four Winds begins in the 1920’s. It’s a time of prosperity and hope for many. Not for Elsa Wolcott, though. Deemed an outsider in her own family, she spends most of her time sitting in her room with dreams she seems certain to never achieve. In a bit of defiance, she secretly exits the prison for a bit of adventure and meets the enigmatic Rafe Martinelli. A bit naive in the ways of the world, she soon finds herself cast out of her family and married to a man she hardly knows.
However, among the Martinelli family, Elsa finds her place. The Martinelli’s are a loving farm family and Elsa loves farm life. She gives them two lovely grandchildren and finally seems to have some peace, except in her relationship with her husband. He was a dreamer who craved adventure, and Elsa’s intrusion in his life stifled all of that.
Enter The Dust Bowl and The Great Depression. The Martinelli farm suffers greatly from the drought and land drying out. Even under the suffering of dire poverty, Elsa is rooted to the land, but also feels the pull of what to do that is best for her family.
The Four Winds is many stories. It is the story of dire poverty and how someone gets through it and finds moments of happiness and pleasure. It’s also the story of the uphill battle people who fall into poverty struggle against. Elsa is more than willing to work, but the people who are not suffering under the economic downturn do everything to exploit the people who labor underneath them, not caring about the human cost.
Still, The Four Winds is not preachy. There’s a lot here to learn from Elsa, who is stronger than she believes she is. She grows up thinking of herself as weak, and it’s easy to see where this still keeps her questioning herself and her decisions, and at the same time she’s stronger than many others. She’s a survivor at a time when surviving was the best she could hope for.
The details of the time are given in a way that feels natural. The family was doing well, even thriving, until the world turned against them. The reason they fall into poverty is through no fault of their own. At worse, they could be blamed for sticking with it too long, believing the dust and drought had to end. There’s history to the Dust Bowl and Great Depression era that are very well presented.
I’ve liked most of Kristin Hannah’s books that I’ve read but feel she’s outdone herself here. Perhaps the coincidental timing makes it all the more poignant as we look on our fellow citizens who are out of work through no fault of their own. I read The Four Winds in less than a week, and although it was her typical tear-jerker, it also gave some historical insight that we could use right about now.
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