The February pick for my Dangerous Creatures Book Club was The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. I fell in love with Hannah's story-telling a couple years ago, when I read - or rather listened to - The Great Alone. She has a knack for creating characters that shimmy their way into the tiny cracks of one's heart, as well as for writing stories that showcase both human fragility and human resiliency. This is one such book.
The Four Winds takes the reader through the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, a period of American history that I am sure I learned about in school but had completely forgotten about. Severe dust storms combined with a period of drought and exacerbated by poor agricultural processes brought on this particularly bleak period of the Great Depression, wreaking havoc on the land, animals and people of the American and Canadian prairies.
If you'll humor me a brief history lesson: In a nutshell, farmers of the Southern Plains were incentivized to plant wheat, corn and other row crops due to increased demand during World War I. However, as the U.S. entered the Great Depression, instead of scaling back, farmers continued to plow more land in hopes of breaking even, and ripped up essential prairie grasses that acted as topsoil, or groundcover, which left the land itself bare and vulnerable to prairie winds. As the soil eroded, the dust storms became larger and more volatile. Crops died and didn't come back. Homes and businesses were flooded with dust and dirt. Cows and other prairie animals ingested so much dust that, once they died of malnourishment or starvation, their innards contained mostly dust. More than 7,000 people lost their lives to "dust pneumonia" and roughly 2.5 million people fled their homes in eastern Colorado, western Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, west Texas and slivers of New Mexico and Nebraska to find a better life out west.
The larger story of the Dust Bowl is within the pages of The Four Winds, but the reader is drawn to the central story of the Martinelli family. When Elsa becomes a Martinelli, not necessarily by choice but out of social obligation and necessity, she joins a hard-working immigrant farming family. The farm life is not for the faint of heart: churning butter, butchering chickens, plowing the land, making preserves, tending to the animals and on the list goes. Elsa struggles at first, thinking herself weak and incapable, but with the help of her tough Italian mother-in-law, Rose, she soon settles into her role as a wife, daughter-in-law, homemaker and mother to two children: Loreda and Ant. When the rains stop and the crops begin to dry up, Elsa's husband, a dreamer who never quite reconciled himself to the life of a farmer, disappears in the middle of the night, leaving Elsa to deal with two heart-broken children and a mounting environmental crisis of epic proportions that threatens the existence of both farm and family.
Once Elsa makes the difficult decision to leave Texas with her children and head west to California, after witnessing the death and destruction of nearly all she holds dear, the story picks up and the stakes are raised. Not wanting to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling the story for readers who haven't yet picked up this gem, suffice it to say that the second half of the book is not an easy read. Elsa and her children encounter roadblock after roadblock as they witness relentless poverty and human suffering among the migrant workcamps in California. I was shocked to learn about the awful conditions of the tent cities, the hostile reception given to the migrants by fellow Americans, and the appalling greed of plantation owners as they took advantage of men, women and children who found themselves in an atrocious situation through no fault of their own. (Unfortunately, after reading more about the Dust Bowl after finishing the book, Elsa's story doesn't stand out. In fact, it's a common story from that era, which makes it all the more outrageous.)
At its heart, this book is a love letter between a mother and her children. While Ant maintains an innocent love and respect for his mother, Loreda, a dreamer like her father, just doesn't understand the choices her mother makes, and so she chafes against Elsa throughout many of their trials. She has no idea how much Elsa, a dreamer herself, has sacrificed for her children. I found myself both mad at and understanding of Elsa's refusal to engage Loreda in her hissy fits. Just tell her who you ARE! I'd yell at the page, yearning for Loreda to understand that she and her mother are more alike than they are different. But then, that's the nature of parent-child relationships, isn't it? For those of us who are fortunate to have parents who love and nurture us, maybe we feel comfortable expressing our more negative emotions toward them because we inherently know that they are a "safe space." No matter how many times Loreda rejects her mother, Elsa remains steadfast in her love and devotion for her children. Once considered a weak, sickly woman, Elsa's incredible character arc proves her to be tough, brave, compassionate and a true fighter.
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.
The Four Winds is a beautiful, heart-breaking, inspiring tale of surviving against the odds and with a message that the bonds of familial love transcend everything. Don't miss this one, dear reader! Elsa and her family will win your hearts and their story will give you some food for thought.
If you're interested in reading more about the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl, this History.com article is quite good.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." What can we learn from the Dust Bowl era to apply to the current climate crisis?
"Don't judge someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes." Why do you think the migrants were treated so cruelly by their fellow Americans? Why are we so disgusted by or afraid of "the other"?
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.