Like a wise and imaginative teacher, Kristin Hannah imbues past events with relevance and significance in her novel The Four Winds.
In 1921, as a sickly, homebound teen, Elsa dreams big. One night she sneaks away from the protective eyes of her family and thrills at the attention paid to her by Rafe Martinelli, a dashing Italian immigrant. When she becomes pregnant by Rafe, Elsa is disowned by her parents, and Rafe’s family takes in the young couple. Soon Elsa becomes an indispensable member of the Martinelli farm. But when Rafe abandons his family and dust storms begin to ravage the land, Elsa and her children journey to California in search of a better life. What they find is devastation, not of the landscape but of human souls, ground down by mistreatment. Elsa finally realizes her big dream, becoming a warrior matriarch who fights for justice.
The story builds to epic proportions over its four distinct parts. The spare writing in the 1921-set first section imparts the starkness of Elsa’s childhood and the barrenness of the landscape, like a Dorothea Lange photograph come alive. The second part, set in 1934, depicts family tensions as Elsa’s rootedness chafes against Rafe’s desire to leave the floundering farm. Their daughter, Loreda, exacerbates their differences through her tenacious yet rebellious spirit. In the third part, set in 1935, the drama of deprivation gives way to the thrill of the open road on the way to California. Mother-daughter sparring allows their relationship to grow, and they’re supported by fellow women in the migrant camp.
But the greatest adventure awaits in the final part, amid violent protests against cotton growers in 1936. Anger over failed crops, failed marriages and failed dreams finds a worthy outlet in the migrant workers’ collective resistance against injustice. At a migrant worker school in California, feisty and eager 13-year-old Loreda is too preoccupied with the troubles of the present to endure boring history lessons, and it’s not long before she becomes an activist for change, following in her mother’s footsteps.
With biting dialogue that holds nothing back, The Four Winds is classic in its artistry. Overtones of America’s present political struggles echo throughout the novel’s events. These indomitable female characters foreshadow the nation’s sweeping change through their fierce commitment to each other and to a common, timeless goal.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Kristin Hannah shares a look at her book-loving life.