Book review and synopsis for The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, A tale of one woman's courage during the Great Depression.
In The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, Elsa Wolcott is a woman trying to raise two children on farm in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl following the Great Depression. She watches as the lands around her crack in their perpetually parched state and the hopelessness threatens to breaks the spirit of those around her.
As the situation worsens, Elsa is forced to make a decision to stay and fight or leave for the uncertain and unfamiliar lands in the West. In this tale, Kristin has written a survival story about resilience, love, family, courage and the American Dream.
(The one-paragraph version: During the Dust Bowl in the Texas Panhandle, Elsa Wolcott is a woman who dreams of going to college, but gets pregnant instead and has two kids. She becomes a farmer with her husband's family, though he leaves them, and they struggle with the unending drought. When she's finally able to leave with her kids, they become migrant workers in California -- which she quickly realizes is an exploitative system. Elsa falls in love with a union organizer and helps to organize a strike against their bosses, but gets shot by the farm boss. She dies giving a voice to the workers. Her daughter, Loreda, returns home to Texas. At 18, Loreda prepares to return to California to go to college.)
The Four Winds is divided up into four sections, each detailing events from (roughly) that year.
In 1921, Elsa Wolcott is a 25-year-old unmarried woman who is not particularly pretty and too tall for most men. She feels restless and destined for spinsterhood. Instead, she meets and sleeps with Rafe Martinelli. When Elsa gets pregnant, her father disowns her, and Rafe's parents (Tony and Rose) tell him to marry Elsa. Rafe dreams of leaving for the big city, but does his duty. Over time, Elsa finds her place on the Martinelli farm, and the baby (name Loreda) is born.
By 1934, Loreda is 12 and has a difficult relationship with her mother. Elsa and Rafe now also have a son, Anthony ("Ant"), 7. The past few years have been difficult, with the Great Depression, an on-going drought and frequent dust storms ravaging the lands. Rafe is unhappy, drinks heavily and dreams of going West to pursue new opportunities. Loreda longs to leave as well, and she prefers her father's dreams to her mother's dreary, joyless work ethic. One day, Rafe abandons them with only a note. As the drought continues, their animals die and supplies run out. After a week-long dust storm, Ant is severely ill due to inhalation of dust. The doctor says he must leave to survive, so Elsa packs up the household into the car. Before she departs, Rose and Tony announce they won't be going. Instead, they are staying to take a governmental payment to grow grass as part of a soil conservation plan to help save the farmland of the Great Plains. Uncertain and scared, Elsa reluctantly leaves with just Art and Loreda.
In 1935, the three of them embark on the ride towards California. They are disheveled and unkept by the time they arrive, and people are rude to them. To save money, spend a night in a tent camp with other migrants, only to learn that wages for migrant work are so low that they'll have to stay there indefinitely. They befriend Jean (who is pregnant) and Jeb Dewey, who show them the ropes. Elsa ends up doing seasonal field work for larger farms. Loreda, too, skips school during cotton-picking season to help, though Elsa's ardent wish is for Loreda to go to college. When money runs low in the winter, Elsa starts standing in the food lines for assistance.
In 1936, Jean goes into labor, but the hospital refuses to admit migrants like her, and the baby is stillborn. The death of the baby is the last straw for Loreda, who hates their life there. She runs away and hitches a ride with Jack Dewey, who works for a Communist organization, Workers United. They stop off at a meeting, and Loreda is inspired by the cause. With a new sense of direction, Loreda no longer wants to run away and goes home. When a flash flood hits the migrant camp, everyone there, including the Martinellis, lose everything.
Jack helps the Martinellis move into a cabin on camp for a large farming operation, Welty Farms, while also encouraging Elsa to unionize its workers. Despite Loreda's interest in the cause, Elsa firmly resists. Elsa soon realizes that Welty's camp is designed to keep their workers poor and indebted to them, but she doesn't want to risk her job. It's not until she sees Jean die from typhoid and Welty casually decrease the wages for its workers that Elsa realizes she must join in the fight. She and Jack fall in love as they help to plan a strike. When the strike finally happens, Elsa propels it forwards when Jack is incapacitated, but Elsa is shot. Before Elsa dies, she asks Jack to take her kids home to Texas.
In the Epilogue, in 1940, Loreda has been living in Texas. She misses her mother. The book ends with her about to return to California to become the first Martinelli to go to college.
In Kristin Hannah’s recently released The Four Winds (published February 2, 2020), Elsa is a woman trying to raise two children on a Texas farm as they watch the lands dry out and as relentless dust storms ravage everything in sight. All around them, people pack up and leave for greener lands and jobs out West, but what actually awaits out there is uncertain at best.
Kristin Hannah’s last novel, The Great Alone, was about a family taming the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness. With The Four Winds, Hannah has penned another survival story, this time about a family in the Great Plains struggling through the difficulties of poverty and famine during the Dust Bowl in the years after the Great Depression.
While both these novels are survival stories, The Four Winds is the one I’d recommend if you’re on the fence between the two of them. It’s been a while since I read it, but I recall finding The Great Alone a little dreary, preferring mostly the beginning parts before the book really gets underway.
While the characters in The Four Winds go through hardships as well, there’s more of a sense of pioneering spirit and resilience that I found uplifting and engaging to read about. It’s a book about determination, love for one’s family and for oneself, the fight to survive and the American Dream.
I also thought it was charming that at the heart of the story is a mother-daughter relationship. The two protagonists of the book, Elsa and Loreda, are both fully drawn and compelling characters. They have a complex relationship that develops and changes as the story progresses in ways that will challenge you to think about your own relationships.
The Four Winds is also a true historical fiction novel, bringing in bits and pieces of historical facts from the time periods it covers. Most of the things that come up are facts that you’d probably heard about in history class, but having it placed into the context of a vivid and expansive story really brought to life a time period that I’ve never really spent much time thinking about.
That all said, like Hannah’s other novels, The Four Winds is fairly plot driven, and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone looking to read literary fiction. That’s not to say this book has no substance, it’s just that it’s not that kind of book.
The cynical part of me thinks that this book overly optimistic when it comes to the kindness of strangers and some of the plot occurrences rely on people just happening to be in the right place at the right time. I also wish Elsa would have found a way to love herself (and to feel that she is loved) separate from a man’s recognition of her worth. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth suspending your disbelief and judgement to just sit back and enjoy this sprawling, tender and engaging historical tale.
Read it or Skip It?
The Four Winds is a historical fiction novel that tells a survival story centered around a mother and her daughter. If you’re a fan of Kristin Hannah or a historical fiction fan in general, I think you’ll really like this book. I’m also guessing that this will be a hit with book clubs, given that it’s accessible and tells a relatively fast-paced story.
It also occurred to me while reading it that, given the strong and complicated mother-daughter relationship in this book, that this could be a great mother’s day gift or a good book give to your mom to read together, if you’re looking for an activity to do with them remotely. It’s a great book to chat about, and I’ve included some discussion questions below if you’re needing ideas on topics.
It’s not a difficult read, so if you’re on the fence about it, I’d encourage you to give it a shot.
The audiobook runs 15 hours. Overall, I liked it. I think the narrator does a good job with it, and it’s easy to listen to.
The accent she does for the dialogue parts is more southern than Texan (where the characters are from), and it slips in and out at times, but I can’t imagine that most people will notice or care.
If you listened to the audiobook, did anyone else notice how the narrator pronounces drought as DROW-TH a bunch of times? Is this some type of pronunciation that I’m not aware of? The first time I heard it, I assumed it was a mistake, but the second time I started wondering if there are people out there who just pronounce it that way. Anyway, not a big deal, just wondering.
Edit: Someone in the comments mentioned that it’s mentioned at some point that people in that area pronounced drought as DROW-TH at that time — in that case, I love that the narrator included it in the audiobook!
What did you think of Elsa as a character, and did your perception of Elsa shift throughout the novel? If so, how?
What did you think of Loreda as a character and how her relationship with Elsa shifts throughout the novel? What do you think prompts the changes in her behavior or in their relationship?
Do you think the way Elsa sees Loreda is accurate? Conversely, do you think the way Loreda sees Elsa is accurate?
What do you think drives Loreda’s anger throughout the book?
Why do you think Loreda takes on her father’s mindset instead of her mothers? How does Loreda’s view of her father change throughout the book and why?
Why do you think Rafe abandons his family instead of just saying he’ll go find a job and send money home?
Based on the information she had at the time, do you think Elsa was wrong not to seriously consider the possibility of moving to California with Rafe, especially when everyone was moving and he was so unhapy?
Why do you think Loreda decides to decisively shoot Milo, a horse that she loves? What does it say about Loreda as a person that she chooses to do this?
What do you think the idea of owning land and working the land means to people? Why do you think Rose and Tony are so determined to stay on the land?
How does Hannah’s description of the experience of migrant workers traveling from the South to California compare with the modern day treatment of immigrants looking for work?
Why do you think Loreda doesn’t take her education that seriously? Why do you think she insists on leaving school to pick cotton?
How do the characters in the book react in the face of poverty? Or losing their land? At the prospect of needing governmental assistance? Why do you think Elsa is reluctant at first to go to the relief office or stand in the food line when they arrive in California?
Hannah mixes in a variety of historical facts as she tells this family’s story and show the technology progressing in that era. Was there anything in particular that you feel you learned or which surprised you?
Highly Recommended Published February 9, 2021
Page Count 464 pages
From the Publisher
The Four Winds is an epic novel of love and heroism and hope, set against the backdrop of one of America’s most defining eras — the Great Depression.
Texas, 1934. Millions are out of work and a drought has broken the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as the crops are failing, the water is drying up, and dust threatens to bury them all. One of the darkest periods of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl era, has arrived with a vengeance.
In this uncertain and dangerous time, Elsa Martinelli—like so many of her neighbors—must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or go west, to California, in search of a better life. 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.