Monday, May 16, 2022

Book Review - The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

The Four Winds is a fictional novel based on the events that occurred during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. More specifically, how one woman from Texas - Elsinore (Elsa) Wolcott - made exceedingly difficult decisions to try to keep her children alive during the 1930s. 



Elsa Wolcott lived her childhood in solitude. Defined as medically fragile and as "not nearly pretty as her sisters" the story opens as she is turning 25 and facing a future as a spinster. 

"There was a pain that came with constant disapproval; a sense of having lost something unnamed, unknown. Else had survived it by being quiet, by not demanding or seeking attention, by accepting that she was loved, but unliked" -excerpt from The Four Winds 

Elsa had learned to entertain herself by reading and survived the cruel comments by making herself as invisible as possible while her family carried on in an otherwise tight-knit group. Things started to fall apart when she informed her family that she wanted to attend college in Chicago. Her family was relatively affluent and cultured but the answer from her parents was a resounding no. They continued to define her as ill. She quietly returned to her room upstairs to her reading.

The next morning, while walking through town to the library, Elsa stopped at the mercantile where she was told about a piece of red silk. The store owner wanted Elsa to inform her beautiful sisters of this dress material. Instead, Elsa bought it for herself. 

The resulting red dress, glittery silver headband and an secret attempt to enter a speakeasy during the days of prohibition changed everything. 

Elsa responded to the first attention she received. And Raffaello entered her life. Very quickly, Elsa went from being the daughter of the in-town-living, Christian, daughter of a successful business man who sells tractors to the farmers to the wife of a young, Italian, Catholic son of struggling farmers.

 Elsa became a farmer's wife. A mother. And she became a part of a family.

The years pass. In 1934, the Great Depression had been in full swing. And it was an extraordinarily hot August. Unknown to Elsa and her family, the Dust Bowl is coming.

As the heat and dust settled in for months, and then years, Elsa had to decide whether to remain on the "farm" (now a pile of dust) with her family or escape to California for work. 


How the Story Impacted Me

I had some vague awareness of both the Great Depression and of the Dust Bowl. I knew that both were disasters. And I knew that my grandparents were frugal - saving every little thing in case it would be needed as a result of their experience (or their parent's experiences) during this era. My grandparents have been gone for a long time now. And I wish I knew their stories. But I don't. 

Now I realize how very little I know of that era and what people went through trying to survive the times. I was aware that the Dust Bowl occurred. For some reason, I imagined that nearly the entire US was in drought for a single growing season. I did not realize that it spanned the middle US states, hitting Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico the hardest. And that it lasted for years.  I knew that crops were killed. I did not realize the enormous toll it took on all livestock and wildlife. And I did not realize the extent of human lives lost. Of course, the death toll was not accurately recorded during these crises but it is thought that hundreds to thousands died of Dust Pneumonia alone. And several hundred thousands fled the plains area to try to survive. 

This story impacts me now as I consider the current happenings in the US. Wild fires, droughts, and torrential spring rains during planting season is impacting agriculture. As is the current economic situation. Many farmers and ranchers are in a tough situation as I type this. Reading this book now reminds me of the time I read the book Jaws on my first trip to Florida and visit to Cocoa Beach. I was afraid to enter the ocean for fear of what might be lurking. I am currently concerned about food supplies, our farmers and ranchers, and what disaster may be lurking next. 

Do I wish I hadn't read this book. My answer is a resounding NO. I am glad to have read this book and recommend it to others. It is a story of a woman who had not received unconditional love as a child and who not only gave unconditional love to her children but who would die for them to save them. It is the story of navigating parent-child relationships. It is a story of proud, hard-working people who just wanted to be able to take care of themselves. Their tenacity and willingness to work hard despite the odds inspires me. Despite the very tough topic and times, this book was filled with love stories. 


Bits from Author Kristin Hannah

Ms. Hannah wrote her Author's Note in May 2020. In the three years that she was writing this book the pandemic arrived in the US. Imagine that. Writing about the death, famine, and destruction of the dust bowl during the death, near-famine, and destruction of the pandemic. 

The Author notes that the timeline is not completely accurate in her fiction. She includes a suggested reading list on her website for more historically accurate information. Ms. Hannah also mentions having taken a tour of "Weedpatch" camp in Arvin, California. And a novel by Sanora Babb titled Whose Names Are Unknown. I find it interesting that Babb's manuscript was submitted in 1939 and was not published until 2004. Read more about that here. I will be reading Ms. Babb's book.


Other Books of Interest

Reading about the dust bowl reminded me of another famine. The potato famine. Like the Dust Bowl, I had known that a potato famine in Ireland occurred. But I had no idea of the extent of it until I had read Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly.  You can read my review of that historical fiction here. I highly recommend it and have read it more than once.

Apparently, the Review This Reviews! contributors are Kristin Hannah fans. Our previous reviews are listed below:




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7 comments:

  1. Oh Dawn, I read this book too and loved it. It's a story that many people don't know and can't imagine. Kristen Hannah does an excellent job of putting you right in the middle of the many winds that blow through our lives. I really enjoyed this book and I'm so happy to see it reviewed. Well done!

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  2. I usually read fiction, but try to deliberately branch out now and then to read non-fiction. The Four Winds sounds like it will be next on my to-read list. As you pointed out, we all most likely had relatives who lived through the era of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and learning what our grandparents/great-grandparents must have endured puts what we have to cope with today into perspective. It also prepares us better to handle similar events in our current lives.

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    1. PS: I know you said this was a fiction story, but it is based on historical events, which makes it read as non-fiction in my opinion. :) Excellent book review, Dawn Rae.

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  3. I love reading anything to do with historical events. I've listened to many stories from my parents and grandparents of the Great Depression. My dad always talked about his favorite dessert when he was a child, it was a slice of bread with homemade jam. Thanks for the recommendation.

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  4. Like you, I like to read accurate historical fiction and compare it to current day. It is sometimes encouraging to know that people are resilient and do survive very difficult times, even if it lasts for years. I couldn't help but think how sad it would be for any child to not have the unconditional love of their parents, especially if their exclusion is due to something they cannot control. This definitely sounds like a thought provoking book and one that could help us think though how we would survive. I've found that if I have considered how to respond to something before actually being faced with it, I handle it better when it arrives.

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  5. Dawn, your beautifully written review immediately made me think of John Steinbeck’s gut-wrenching, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Here’s a quote from Chapter 19 that seems fitting: “ How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can't scare him – he has known a fear beyond every other.” Apart from Elsa’s origins as the “ugly duckling,” viewed as “less than” daughter of a wealthy, prominent family that prompted her to flee to a life as different from what she had known as possible, these two novels about farmers’ and their families’ grit in the face of unimaginable suffering have many parallels. Thank you for introducing to Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds.

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  6. Like Margaret, your review also made me think of The Grapes of Wrath - I learned so much from that book, and I believe I also saw a movie about the book in school. Also, watching The Waltons (I was a big fan) taught me a lot about those times. Four Winds sounds like a must read for me.

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