If you were taken with Kristin Hannah’s novel “The Nightingale” prepare to be captivated by “The Four Winds.” In this must-read, Hannah turns her attention to the Dust Bowl, focusing on a much-aligned young woman from the Texas Panhandle who faces challenges, personal and environmental, as she struggles to cope and retain hope.
We meet Elsa Wolcott when she’s a teenager, one who’s suffered ill health and is perceived by her family as having a weak constitution. That couldn’t be less true, but Elsa’s parents’ feelings impact the girl’s self-confidence. They not only see her as weak but homely, a bad fit in her well-to-do, attractive and affected family. Elsa finds solace in visiting the library and escaping into books.
Seeking approval from anyone who will have her, Elsa succumbs to the attention of a dashing, swarthy man she meets on her way to a speakeasy after she gives herself a new “do” and sews a daring dress.
Against her parents’ wishes she dashes out for the night, straight into the arms of Raffaello Martinelli, an Italian immigrant who lives on a farm with his parents. Elsa doesn’t understand the chance she’s taking when she falls for him and is shocked to learn she’s pregnant—her parents are furious and take her to the Martinelli farm, demanding Raffaello marry her.
So begins Elsa’s life of servitude, not only to a man who drinks too much, but also to the land. The only light in Elsa’s bleak days come from her daughter, son and in-laws—hardworking, good people befuddled by their son’s hapless ways.
While this novel is rather simple at the start, it shines when Hannah focuses on the Dust Bowl, offering detailed descriptions of what those years entailed for pioneer families like the Martinellias, who faced endless drought and dashed dreams of rain. Many Dust Bowl families headed West, as does Raffaello, who disappears leaving his aged parents, wife and children to continue eking out a living while he escapes to California, perceived to be the land of milk and honey. Eventually, Hannah and her children learn this isn’t the case at all.
Hannah has created a brilliant book on the Dust Bowl, and peopled the land with unforgettable characters, like Elsa and her daughter Loreda, a challenge to her mother initially but a young woman who finally makes Elsa proud.
“The Four Winds” proves once again that Hannah is a brilliant storyteller. It comes to us at a time when our world is struggling, a reminder that we’ve faced hard times before. It’s the novel we need right now.