“The Four Winds” By Kristin Hannah
This is a very unusual story set in Texas in 1934, with events leading through to California in 1936; times of great hardship in America, the Great Depression, and in Texas the Dust Bowl, created by severe drought and over farming.
The principal character is Elsa Martinelli, who we first meet in 1921 as Elsa Wolcott, the third daughter of a successful tractor retailer, she lives a comfortable but secluded life, her elder and prettier sisters have married and she is left at home heading towards spinsterhood. Though Elsa is more than she seems, and has a rebellious streak running through her; she is not the sickly one her mother has always over-protected, and the opening section of the book sees how Elsa marries and moves to live on the Martinelli farm.
Her husband, Rafe, is the only son of Italian immigrants, Tony and Rose, who have built up their farmstead over the years gradually extending it until in 1934 the drought arrives and life becomes very hard. They had welcomed Elsa in to their family after she converts to Catholicism, delivers Loreda, their first grandchild, followed by grandson Ant, and Elsa proves her worth being a good contributor to the farm and household.
As this is referred to in the book’s blurb, it is not a spoiler to say that Rafe cannot cope with the hardship of the dust bowl, and after showing more and more signs of breakdown, ups and leaves, deserting his family, and devastating Loreda with whom he had a close affinity. She is heart broken, and as a teenager finds this rejection hard to deal with, especially as her best friend’s family packs up and leaves for the West.
Life gets no easier for the Martinelli family as the harshness of the climate only intensifies, their animals slowly dying, even much loved workhorse Milo, a character in his own right. The author’s descriptions of the wasted landscape, the dying local town, and of a society falling apart are deftly presented. Eventually young Ant falls sick and the doctor who saves his life convinces Elsa that she needs to leave and the family make plans to load up their possessions and with the few family dollars they have, set off for California.
The second half of the book recounts their experiences, and hardships in the West. Life is not as easy as rumour had lead all to believe. The streets of California are not paved in gold! Here we see Elsa fighting to protect and to provide for her children, through tough months, occasional work, and income, and resentment by the locals to the influx of migrants. The camaraderie amongst some of these families as they fight to survive is again strongly and touchingly described by the author, and the research she has put into this novel certainly self evident.
It is a good read, informative, and compelling. Another view of America last century between the wars.
NB. Currently only available in hardback.