The Four Winds. Kristin Hannah. 2021. [February] 464 pages. [Source: Review copy]
First sentence: Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when it felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going. I came west in search of a better life, but my American dream was turned into a nightmare by poverty and hardship and greed. These past few years have been a time of things lost: Jobs. Homes. Food. The land we loved turned on us, broke us all, even the stubborn old men who used to talk about the weather and congratulate each other on the season’s bumper wheat crop.
Premise/plot: The Four Winds is a historical novel set primarily in the 1930s during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Primarily. Readers spend a brief period of time with Elsa, our heroine, in the 1920s which sets up the story.
Elsa Wolcott--when we first meet her--is twenty-five and feeling every bit a spinster. Her parents have almost molded her into that role of unlovable, unworthy spinster. But after reading Age of Innocence, she decides enough is enough is enough. She buys herself some red silk and makeup, sews herself a dress, and sneaks out of the house looking for something--anything--to make life bearable. What she finds is a younger man, an Italian, who wants to take her for a drive out to a barn for a good time. A good time is just what she's craving--though she might not have been brave enough to be blunt. A few months later, Elsa realizes she's with child--as do her parents--and she's driven to the Martinelli homestead and dumped. Elsa and Rafe marry. This first preliminary section ends with the birth of that child--a baby girl she names Laredo.
The rest of the novel is set during the Dust Bowl and will see our characters--Elsa and family--move from the Texas Panhandle to California.
My thoughts: Beautifully written. That's what I'd say first and foremost. The Four Winds is BITTERSWEET. If it didn't have that epilogue, I would say it was more BITTER than sweet, I tell you. But even when things are at their bleakity-bleak-bleakest the narrative is so compelling that the story is just beautiful and the characters fully developed. There were so many complex relationships in this one!!! In particular, the relationship between mothers and daughters and parent and child. (I love, love, love, love, love the relationship between Elsa and her mother-in-law, Rose.)
There were times when I wanted to interfere, to yell a bit. But I take that as a good sign. And it's not like I have alternative better answers that would with certainty have 'saved the day.' (I don't. Not really. Not with certainty.) But there were plenty of times I was like THIS IS A TERRIBLE IDEA. ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO DO THIS? For example, I don't see why California was seen as the one and only answer by desperate people. There are other states too. But I digress.
I think it balanced bleakity-bleak with hope quite well. But I do have to say that though the ending was completely authentically in tune with the whole novel--everything was leading up to this--it was still WRONG on a purely emotional level.
Is it clean? Would I recommend it to those looking for clean reads? Mostly. The first bit is on-screen but non-descriptive. It also doesn't take up much space. The last bit is a bit more descriptive--but again not page-consuming. I would say the purpose is realism and life-as-it-is and not in any way romance. (More time is spent describing picking cotton.) The language--I think there are a few words here and there. But again it felt natural enough and not for shock value or being there for the sake of being there.
Elsa Wolcott had spent years in enforced solitude, reading fictional adventures and imagining other lives. In her lonely bedroom, surrounded by the novels that had become her friends, she sometimes dared to dream of an adventure of her own, but not often.
Hope began to dim for a woman when she turned twenty. By twenty-two, the whispers in town and at church would have begun, the long, sad looks. By twenty-five, the die was cast. An unmarried woman was a spinster.
There had to be opportunities out there, but where would she find them? The library. Books held the answer to every question.
Books had always been her solace; novels gave her the space to be bold, brave, beautiful, if only in her own imagination.
You are a town girl,” Mr. Martinelli said in a thick Italian accent. “Not anymore, I guess.” “This is a good answer.” He bent down, scooped up a handful of dirt. “My land tells its story if you listen. The story of our family. We plant, we tend, we harvest. I make wine from grapes that I brought here from Sicily, and the wine I make reminds me of my father. It binds us, one to another, as it has for generations. Now it will bind you to us.” “I’ve never tended to anything.” He looked at her. “Do you want to change that?” Elsa saw compassion in his dark eyes, as if he knew how afraid she’d been in her life, but she had to be imagining it. All he knew about her was that she was here now and she’d brought his son down with her. “Beginnings are only that, Elsa. When Rosalba and I came here from Sicily, we had seventeen dollars and a dream. That was our beginning. But it wasn’t what gave us this good life. We have this land because we worked for it, because no matter how hard life was, we stayed here. This land provided for us. It will provide for you, too, if you let it.”
“Believe me, Elsa, this little girl will love you as no one ever has … and make you crazy and try your soul. Often all at the same time.”
“That she would love me as no one else ever would and break my heart?” “Sì. And you see how right I was?” “About part of it, I guess. She certainly breaks my heart.” “Yes. I was a trial to my poor mamma, too. The love, it comes in the beginning of her life and at the end of yours. God is cruel that way. Your heart, is it too broken to love?” “Of course not.” “So, you go on.” She shrugged, as if to say, Motherhood. “What choice is there for us?” “It just … hurts.” Rose was silent for a while; finally, she said, “Yes.”
Dust pneumonia. That was what they called it, but it was really loss and poverty and man’s mistakes.
“You are the daughter I always wanted,” Rose said. “Ti amo.” “And you are my mother,” Elsa said. “You saved me, you know.” “Mothers and daughters. We save each other, sì?”
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. Jack says that I am a warrior and, while I don’t believe it, I know this: A warrior believes in an end she can’t see and fights for it. A warrior never gives up. A warrior fights for those weaker than herself. It sounds like motherhood to me.
© 2020 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews