Review: ‘The Four Winds” showcases a mother’s strength
"The Four Winds" by Kristin Hanna. Contributed
“It was always about the men. They seemed 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.”
This hard-hitting historical novel is about the resilience of women: mothers, daughters, friends and how they elevate the spirits of loved ones. It begins in the Texas Panhandle in 1921 where we meet the main character Elsa Wolcott. The 25-year old “spinster” daughter of unloving, small-minded parents who reduce her to invisibility with their constant reminders of her too-tall, too-pale unattractiveness and her rheumatic-fever-damaged heart.
Books are her only friends and they’ve opened the door to prospects of a different life. “She had to believe there was grit in her, even if it had never been tested or revealed.” Emboldened by the words in her books, Elsa cuts her waist-length hair into a ‘20s style bob, sews an alluring red silk dress, dons a glittery headband, and runs out into the night where a chance encounter with Rafe Martinelli changes her life.
Although disowned and shunned by her disapproving parents, she will be a wife and a mother. A miracle!
Nine years later, life is better than she had ever dreamed on the Martinelli farm. Rafe tries to be a loving husband but fails miserably; Elsa has one stillborn and two living children, Loreda and Ant; and Rafe’s parents, Tony and Rose, are the loving parents she never had.
The last good wheat crop on the farm was 1930 and then the rain stopped! The ensuing years of drought, combined with the economic devastation of the Crash of ’29, brought the Great Plains including the Martinelli farm to its knees.
By 1934, the pantry was bare, animals and people were dying, the dry earth itself seem to be dying with terrifying giant zigzag cracks appearing, but nothing could prepare them for the locomotive-sounding wind and the increasing dust storms — the newest scourge of the Great Plains.
There was no way to escape the dust, the grit and the relentless heat. Kristin Hannah’s brutal description of the Dust Bowl gives one the feeling of dirt in your mouth and dust endlessly in your eyes.
Thousands of flyers start to appear in Texas promising jobs for everyone! Land of opportunity! Go west to California! Rafe wants to leave the farm with no money, no transportation, traveling with shoeless children and, even if necessary, leaving his parents behind. Elsa, fiercely loyal to his parents and protective of her two children, is hesitant. Rafe abandons his family in the middle of the night without a word.
When Ant develops almost fatal “dust pneumonia,” a common affliction of animals and humans as a result of the dust storms, Elsa and her family make the agonizing decision to leave the land she has grown to love and travel 1,000 miles west to California to seek the American Dream.
At the last moment, Elsa realizes her beloved Tony and Rose are sending her off with her children on this arduous journey alone. Elsa remembers her grandfather’s admonishment to her to be brave and, unlike Rafe, Elsa Martinelli’s love for her children is what enables her to be brave and resilient.
“It wasn’t the fear that matters in life. It was the choices made when you were afraid. You were brave because of your fear, not in spite of it.”
Although California is breathtakingly beautiful, Elsa has traded one set of dire circumstances for another. Living in a filthy ditch camp with only a tent for shelter, Elsa finds unscrupulous big growers exploit the migrant workers with meager wages and company store debt, locals are prejudiced against “Okies” and there is no way to dig out of the poverty or overcome the prejudice.
Kristin Hannah, a former lawyer-turned-successful writer, is a New York Times bestselling author of almost two dozen historical novels, including “The Nightingale,” which has been translated into 43 languages and has been optioned for movie production. Once again, this author has hit a home run with “The Four Winds”!
Laree Lewis, a transplanted Texan living in Youngsville for almost a decade, has had a passion for good books all her life.
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