Kristin Hannah’s latest novel is an outstanding historical saga sparking memories of the classic John Steinbeck story, Grapes of Wrath. Based during the great depression, the hardships and demise of small farmers and the migration of people from the Dust Bowl states in America to the land of milk and honey – California. Except, California was where “I came west in search of a better life, but my American dream was turned into a nightmare by poverty and hardship and greed.” The Four Winds is an epic story that follows the life of Elsa Martinelli, mainly from 1934 to 1936, through the most harrowing and traumatic years in American history.
As a younger woman, Elsa was repeatedly told she was ugly, tall and gangly, often ill with a weak heart, starved of love from her parents, and side-lined by her more attractive sisters. She found most of her pleasure through books (love her for that). Just to be loved even for one night, meant so much to her, but unfortunately, it led to pregnancy. Then forced into a marriage with Rafe Martinelli, disowned by her own wealthy family, and living with her in-laws, initially as a burden and blamed for their own son’s shattered dreams, she understands shame, rejection and loneliness. Initially, I felt this was too much adversity to throw at one person, especially as her life proceeds on an unrelenting roller coaster ride between despair, joy and more despair, however, it becomes clear that it combines many issues and challenges into one person to give us a memorable focal point. On a personal level, it creates incredible sympathy for Elsa and completely draws you into the story.
Elsa has a deep unconditional love for her children, Loreda and Ant, influenced no doubt from the memories of her own childhood. Gradually her mother-in-law and father-in-law, Rose and Tony, recognise Elsa’s honest and vulnerable character and come to love her as a daughter, and in return, Elsa loves them as the parents she never truly had. When her husband can’t take the misery of lost dreams, drought, dust storms, ruined crops and poverty, he leaves his family, and Elsa is blamed by her teenage daughter for him running off without them.
“ ‘Life isn’t what makes my daddy sad.’ ‘Oh, really? Tell me, then, with all your worldly experience, what is it that makes your father unhappy?’ ‘You,’ Loreda said.”
A brutal cut that is driven deep into her soul and yet Elsa remains steadfast and devoted to her children. When their options run out for staying in Texas, Elsa packs her children and belongings and makes for California to find a better life. The hardship of travelling with no money, no food and the constant danger, is the life of a migrant and yet all that awaits them in California is more of the same. Forced to live in migrant camps where hardship is an everyday reality, where death is much more common-place due to sickness and poverty, and where employers on cotton plantations and fruit farms only offer the minimal, barely survivable, wage because there is always someone willing to work for less. The realisation that life isn’t getting better and rather is owned and exploited by greedy landowners, drives at the injustice and hopelessness. Yet amongst the greatest poverty, the smallest amount of kindness can seem so huge. Elsa focuses on survival with a resourceful disposition that she needs to keep fighting for her family.
“The four winds have blown us here, people from all across the country, to the very edge of this great land, and now, at last, we make our stand, fight for what we know to be right. We fight for our American dream, that it will be possible again.”
A sentiment that has a contemporary resonance with the pandemic and economic collapse ravaging us today, not to mention the rich getting richer while the unfortunate stand in food lines and face eviction.
The Four Winds is one of those books that elevate your faith in the power of literature to totally captivate. Surely destined to be one of the top books of the year. I would highly recommend this book and I would like to thank St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC in return for an honest review.