Last fall, I read “The Cold Millions,” the fictionalized story about union organizers in Spokane, Washington, in the early 20th century. Written by Jess Walters, I thought it was terrific eye opener – a great read as well as informative.
Now bestselling author Kristin Hannah (“The Nightingale,” “The Great Alone,” Firefly Lane”) has published “The Four Winds,” (St. Martin’s) a poignant novel about efforts to organize migrant workers in California during the Depression. Reminiscent of Steinbeck’s 1939 classic, “The Grapes of Wrath,” Hannah’s book chronicles the Dust Bowl, when storms and drought led more than 3 million people to abandon their farms in the Great Plains. But, unlike “Cold Millions” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Four Winds” is told solely from a female perspective.
With income inequity soaring and union membership tumbling, it appears that labor may be “in” at the moment. Walter and Hannah both take readers back to an era when hopeless workers joined arms to fight for their pay, their dignity and their very lives.
“The Four Winds” is set in 1921 a small family farm in northwestern Texas. People there make difficult decisions, and suffer through endless dust storms that fill their lungs and bury their homes. Elsinore “Elsa” Wolcott is the oldest daughter in a middle-class family and, because she is “too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself,” they favor her sisters and treat Elsa like an ugly duckling. Her cold, insensitive parents keep her secluded in her room reading, claiming she was too weak to tolerate any social interaction. At 25 Elsa is a spinster and constantly told that “no man of note wants an unattractive wife.”
Elsa lives in quiet desperation, a passionate woman long ignored and repressed. However, she’s resolute – a survivor and someone who doesn’t know her own worth. “If she didn’t do something soon, something drastic, her future would look no different from her present,” Hannah writes. “She would stay in this house for all her life” with books as her only friends. One of those “book friends” pays off in a roundabout way. Inspired by the scandalous story of Fanny Hill, Elsa makes a revealing red dress and she takes off for a night of romantic adventure. She gets what she wants briefly, but it turns out that novels haven’t given her much understanding of how sex really works. The single night of abandon leads to pregnancy and a forced marriage to Rafe Martinelli, a young Italian Catholic and the son of Italian immigrant farmers.
Elsa finds some pleasure in working the Martinelli’s land, tending the animals, and learning her way around her loving mother-in-law’s kitchen, but her marriage is never happy. She has two children she adores, Loreda and Anthony, but the joys of motherhood are short, and soon the calamitous droughts of the 1930s send all the area farmers into desperation and near starvation. As the conditions get worse, Rafe begins to dream of California, rumored to be “the land of milk and honey,” with plenty of work. He flees in the middle of the night, leaving Elsa and her in-laws to care for the youngsters. The arrival of scientists from the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal relief program, offers some hope, but the storms intensify and food is scarce.
When Anthony falls ill with dust pneumonia, Elsa decides that they, too, must make the dangerous trip to California. Wanting to give her children a chance at survival, she heads off only to find things are even worse than in Texas. The paradise she hoped for is anything but. California is inundated by poor people desperate for work and food. There are no safety standards, labor laws or minimum wage. The author is outstanding at detailing the spirit, humanity and hope of these migrants who are trapped in a vicious circle of low-income warfare with the bosses who keep them totally indebted.
The giant-farm owners can treat their help as brutally as they want because it’s a time in the country when many feel that providing government aid would weaken workers’ initiative. Those who made it to California are treated like freeloaders, huddling together in squalid refugee camps lacking any type of sanitation. Local residents turn their backs and have racist views about “Okies” (a term for all those who have arrived looking for work on farms). When the laborers organize a strike for better pay, there’s violence.
Sound familiar? There’s definitely a resonance in this powerful story of everyday, hard-working, honest people who become hopeless by forces beyond their control. The language describing unsatisfactory government aid, money hungry businesses and the need for “drastic change” might also sound like you’ve heard it before. At times it seemed that Hannah’s characters stepped out of the book and into the present, becoming immigrants seeking sanctuary in the U.S., Syrians in refugee camps trying to make soap to protect themselves from COVID-19, uprooted Americans whose homes burned to the ground while politicians debate the truth of global warming, and the millions with credit card bills that practically enslave them to the companies they owe.
“The Four Winds” is historical fiction at its best. The scenes of the horrendous Great Depression are sobering, heartbreaking and terrifying, but, readers will come away with deep admiration for those courageous beings who lived through such a harsh period. And, at the heart of the author’s story is the knowledge that even in the worst of times and under dreadful circumstances – here are many acts of kindness and instances of resilience. This is what makes “The Four Winds” such a vital and rewarding read.