The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
I looked forward to reading this book so much that I almost bought a copy instead of waiting to borrow it from my grandmother, but it ended up being my least favorite of Kristin Hannah’s books.
Texas, 1921. Too tall and too old to marry, Elsa Wolcott can’t resist Rafe Martinelli’s attention, but when their unsanctioned relationship ruins her reputation, she has only one respectable option: marriage to Rafe, a man she barely knows.
She grows to love the Martinelli’s farm, and gradually earns the respect of her in-laws, but the Great Depression changes everything. With millions out of work, the drought’s constant barrage of dust storms jeopardize both the farm and Elsa’s marriage. Elsa must make an impossible choice: leave the land she loves or head west in search of a better life for her children.
Elsa begins the story insecure about her appearance and value, and much of the story revolves around her trying to earn love. She proves herself a hard-working woman who perseveres through trials the modern millennial couldn’t comprehend. After facing numerous rejections, she strives to hold on to her daughter’s affection, but Loreda’s teenage years have pushed them farther apart.
Loreda is a typical small-town girl who dreams of more. Like most teenaged girls, she blames her mother for everything from her father’s unhappiness to the drought. When the family’s dire circumstances push her past bitterness into desperation, she finds she and her mother have more in common than she’d thought.
The plot centers on the family’s struggle to farm during the drought, descent into poverty, and eventual migration to California in search of a better life. Unfortunately, instead of a land flowing with milk and honey, California offers them only poverty and discrimination.
Mostly, I enjoyed the plot. However, I hated the ending. I’ll describe my thoughts on it below, but if you don’t want spoilers, skip to the next section.
The book’s main storylines are Elsa learning that she is loveable and Loreda learning to value her mother. However, Elsa doesn’t feel valuable until Jack falls in love with her. In a book that intentionally emphasizes the role of women in the Depression, I hate that Elsa needs a man to show her love. A better ending would have been shown her learning to value herself as she fought for her children’s well-being, especially since the conflict revolves around her relationship with her daughter. Finding satisfaction in her daughter’s love would have been much more satisfying than some man’s sexual attraction.
Loreda’s storyline is better completed. After seeing her mother lead the workers’ strike, she finally learns to respect her mother’s strength and realizes she possesses that same fortitude within herself. However, the ending rings hollow. Loreda goes to college, like her mother wanted, but I feel like she would have done that anyway. Her newfound respect for her mother, if not her mother’s lifestyle, didn’t change her behavior. If Hannah had made Loreda more resistant to schooling throughout the book, this transformation would have been more effective.
In her typical brilliance, Hannah describes life in the Depression with heart-wrenching detail, almost too much detail. Reading her prose is like experiencing the hardships of the Depression first hand—not pleasant. I could almost taste the dust in my mouth. Reading it during a road trip through the desert probably didn’t help.
I never figured out why the novel is titled The Four Winds, other than the dust storms’ prominence. Still, it left me wondering, which four?
Though Hannah describes life in the Depression with beautiful-but-heart-breaking detail, I was unsatisfied with the ending. Such well-rounded characters deserved more thematically consistent endings to their emotional journeys. If you are curious about life during the 1930s, this book will bring those difficult years to life, but don’t count on the ending being worthy of a standing ovation.
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