Book Review: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Title: The Four Winds
Author: Kristin Hannah
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: February 2, 2021
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone comes an epic novel of love and heroism and hope, set against the backdrop of one of America’s most defining eras—the Great Depression.

Texas, 1934. Millions are out of work and a drought has broken the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as the crops are failing, the water is drying up, and dust threatens to bury them all. One of the darkest periods of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl era, has arrived with a vengeance.

In this uncertain and dangerous time, Elsa Martinelli—like so many of her neighbors—must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or go west, to California, in search of a better life. The Four Winds is an indelible portrait of America and the American Dream, as seen through the eyes of one indomitable woman whose courage and sacrifice will come to define a generation.

The Four Winds is a powerful, dramatic, and heart-breaking book set during the Great Depression, with an incredibly strong and memorable woman as its lead character and emotional core.

Elsa is the oldest daughter of a wealthy Texas family when we first meet her in 1921. At age 25, she’s considered a spinster. For reasons that are impossible to fathom, her parents have treated her as someone unworthy of love all her life. Their scorn and dismissal have led to Elsa’s internalization of their cruelty — she sees her self as unattractive and uninteresting. Despite her love of reading and interest in education, her parents won’t even consider her request to attend college.

Elsa is doomed to a solitary life, until one day, a rebellious moment leads her to venture out in a pretty dress to go to a speakeasy, and she meets a young man, Rafe, whose interest will change her life. When Elsa’s parents realize that she’s pregnant, they force her to pack a suitcase and drive her to Rafe’s parents’ farm, where they drop her on their doorstep and never look back.

Against all odds, it’s here that Elsa truly finds love and purpose in life — not with her unexpected husband, but in his family’s home. Suddenly, Elsa has family and a place, and learns to embrace the farm, the household, the culture, and the people. Her devotion to her new family only grows once she gives birth to her daughter Loreda. She’s determined to raise her children with love and with a connection to the land, their heritage.

Tragically, the happiness on the farm is not to last. The Dust Bowl years descend, with their punishing drought and horrific dust storms, and Elsa and the Martinellis, like all of their neighbors, are helpless and powerless in the face of this disaster. Over the years, they watch their crops fail, their lands dry up, their livestock starve and die. Many pack up and leave, lured by the promise of opportunity and jobs in California. The Martinellis vow never to leave, but this changes once the children’s health is threatened by the lack of food and the damage caused by constantly breathing in dirt and dust.

Ultimately, Elsa has no choice but to take her children and head west in pursuit of a new, healthier life. At first glance, it looks like they’ve found the promised land. As they drive into California, they see field after field of crops growing, green and healthy. But the dream is elusive for migrants. Overwhelmed by the flood of displaced people from the Dust Bowl states, California wants to shut its borders to “Okies”, and treats the newcomers as little more than vermin.

Elsa and her children learn that they’ve left one type of hell for another. There’s no place to live except in squatters’ camps, amid mud and filth, and no work available except toiling in the fields for minimal pay in terrible conditions. There are more workers than work, so they quickly learn to keep quiet and accept whatever comes their way, because the alternative is to starve.

The cruelty of the treatment of migrants is horrible to read about. Hospitals won’t treat them, even in life-threatening emergencies. They’re not wanted in schools, and are told to keep to their own kind. State relief is only available after living in the state for a year, but even then, the big farmers put pressure on the state to cut off relief to anyone who’s able to “pick” — if they can work, they should be in the fields.

When Elsa gets a lucky break and is able to move her family into a cabin on a growers’ land, it’s finally a roof over their heads, but with strings. To keep the cabin, they have to stay put, but there’s no work until the cotton is ready to pick. If they leave to pick elsewhere, they give up their home and have to go back to squatting. To stay, they get credit at the company store for rent, supplies, and food. The only way to pay back the credit is through picking — even when relief payments come through and Elsa has cash in hand, she can’t use it to get out of debt, since the company store doesn’t allow payment in cash.

Over the years, we witness Elsa’s determination to protect her children and provide for them. Midway through the book, as Loreda enters her teens, she also becomes a point-of-view character, and we have the opportunity to see Elsa through her daughter’s eyes. The mother-daughter relationship isn’t easy, but the love between them is always real and palpable.

Reading The Four Winds repeatedly brought me to tears. Through her evocative writing, Kristin Hannah makes us feel the sorrow and hopelessness of the characters, the desperation to provide a better life for their children, the despair each time a new degradation is revealed. The pain of the Martinelli family is visceral, as they face trauma after trauma.

Still, it’s impossible not to admire Elsa’s courage. She doesn’t give up, because she can’t. Her purpose is to keep her children alive and healthy, and to make sure that some day, they’ll have better opportunities. Eventually, her devotion to her children leads her into the world of social activism and the fight for workers’ rights, but it’s her love of family that drives her into acts of defiance and bravery.

The Four Winds is a beautiful and tragic book about a time in American history that’s not as distant as it might seem. Sadly, the attitudes and prejudices toward the migrant families are all too familiar — it’s the haves versus the have-nots, the consolidation of power by denying others, the lack of recognition of basic human dignity, and a complete lack of compassion for those less fortunate.

I highly recommend The Four Winds. This is a book that kept me awake each night, because I couldn’t get the images and situations out of my mind. Ultimately, the characters (especially Elsa) make the biggest impression, but overall, the story is moving, disturbing, memorable, and important. Don’t miss it.

******************

A final note: Two songs kept coming up for me in relation to The Four Winds. The first is Sixteen Tons, which is about coal miners, but some lines really resonate: “You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt” and “St. Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go – I owe my soul to the company store.” The song was originally written by Merle Travis, and has been recorded by lots of artists over the years. Here’s a version by LeAnn Rimes:

The other song which was in my head throughout my entire reading of this powerful book is These Troubled Fields by Nancy Griffith. It’s a beautiful song that I’ve loved for years, and it’s only as I was reading The Four Winds that I realized that her song directly references the Dust Bowl era. Check it out.

Audiobook Review: The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Title: The Giver of Stars
Author: Jojo Moyes
Narrator:  Julia Whelan
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: October 8, 2019
Print length: 388 pages
Audio length: 13 hours 52 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the author of Me Before You, set in Depression-era America, a breathtaking story of five extraordinary women and their remarkable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond.

Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them–and to the men they love–becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.

Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope and epic in its storytelling. Funny, heartbreaking, enthralling, it is destined to become a modern classic–a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post questioning whether we really needed another book about the Depression-era Kentucky pack hours librarians, after having read the excellent The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. A variety of sources had identified concerns about he similarities of this book and The Giver of Stars, which was published later in the same year.

At the time, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read another book on the same historical subject, particularly given some of the questions raised. However, I finally got around to The Giver of Stars after all, and I have to admit, it’s really good.

In The Giver of Stars, we’re introduced to the small town of Baileyville, Kentucky through the eyes of Alice Van Cleve, a young Englishwoman recently married to Bennett Van Cleve, the son of one of the wealthiest and most influential local men. Alice’s starry-eyed approach to marriage is shattered by the absolute lack of affection from Bennett and his constant deferral to his father, in whose house they live and who controls every aspect of their lives.

At a town meeting, a local woman introduces the idea of starting up a pack horse library as part of a WPA project spearheaded by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. While many townsfolk (mostly men) are scandalized, Alice is quick to volunteer, needing to find a purpose and an occupation to take her away from her domestic unhappiness.

The librarians, led by outspoken Margery O’Hare, ride up into the mountains on their mules and horses to deliver books and magazines to the families living there. The job is strenuous and difficult, but rewarding. The women of the library are clearly changing lives with each contact and each delivery.

Alice’s father-in-law is not one to tolerate disobedience, and he takes a particular dislike to Margery’s flouting of traditional feminine roles, painting her as an evil influence to anyone who’ll listen. Mr. Van Cleve owns the local mine that employs much of the adult male population of the area, and he has his own doubtful interests to protect, especially once he suspects Margery of promoting pro-union activism and helping the mountain folk to find ways to thwart his intended mine expansion. His anger becomes more and more dangerous to Alice, Margery, and the existence of the library itself.

The Giver of Stars is an absorbing read, with unique characters we come to care about a great deal, and a nice mix of focus on their personal lives with the bigger picture drama of life in Baileyville and its gossip, natural and man-made dangers, and good-old-boy politics.

The audiobook is lovely, with narration by the talented Julia Whelan, who brings the characters to life, but also beautifully narrates the more descriptive passages about the Kentucky landscapes and the quality of life in the hills.

So, I hereby take back my skepticism about this book! While there are some similarities to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (apart the most obvious, the choice of general subject matter), there was nothing that particularly jumped out at me while I was listening the The Giver of Stars enough to be disturbing or distracting.

Yes, I guess we really did need two books about pack horse librarians! Both are terrific. My main recommendation would be to read them with some time in between, so each can be appreciated on its own merits. I’m glad I finally gave The Giver of Stars a try!

How many pack horse librarian books is too many?

Image from Wednesday’s Women website

Oh, dear.

A whiff of scandal has just come to my attention, and it involves one of my go-to authors.

It seems that the new novel by Jojo Moyes, The Giver of Stars, may have just a wee bit too much in common with a book published earlier this year, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Robinson.

A friend just sent me this link from Buzzfeed about the “alarming similarities” between the two books. And while I haven’t read The Giver of Stars yet (my hold request just came in at the library), hearing this makes me pause a bit.

I read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek when it came out, and loved it. (My review is here). It’s a personal, intimate look at the life of a pack horse librarian in Kentucky during the Depression.

 

In 1936, tucked deep into the woods of Troublesome Creek, KY, lives blue-skinned 19-year-old Cussy Carter, the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry. The lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian, riding across slippery creek beds and up treacherous mountains on her faithful mule to deliver books and other reading material to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky.

Along her dangerous route, Cussy, known to the mountain folk as Bluet, confronts those suspicious of her damselfly-blue skin and the government’s new book program. She befriends hardscrabble and complex fellow Kentuckians, and is fiercely determined to bring comfort and joy, instill literacy, and give to those who have nothing, a bookly respite, a fleeting retreat to faraway lands.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a powerful message about how the written word affects people–a story of hope and heartbreak, raw courage and strength splintered with poverty and oppression, and one woman’s chances beyond the darkly hollows. Inspired by the true and historical blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the brave and dedicated Kentucky Pack Horse library service, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek showcases a bold and unique tale of the Pack horse Librarians in literary novels — a story of fierce strength and one woman’s belief that books can carry us anywhere — even back home.

And guess what? Jojo Moyes’s new book is ALSO about a pack horse librarian in Kentucky during the Depression.

 

Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Horseback Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them—and to the men they love—becomes a classic drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. Though they face all kinds of dangers, they’re committed to their job—bringing books to people who have never had any, sharing the gift of learning that will change their lives.

Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope. At times funny, at others heartbreaking, this is a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.

And sure, two authors could work on two completely separate novels at the same time and have them be about the same subject, time period, historical area of interest, etc. But the BuzzFeed piece makes it sounds like the similarities go beyond general subject matter.

I was all queued up to read the new Jojo Moyes book, because hey, I read ALL her new books. But I must admit, I knew nothing about the actual plot before reading this article today, other than that it was set in the US and was historical fiction. Now I’m not so sure that I want to read it. Even if the similarities are completely innocent, I feel like I already read one excellent book about a pack horse librarian — I’m not feeling like I need another right now!

What do you think? Are you familiar with either book? Have you read either one… and if you’re planning to, does this information change your feelings at all?

I haven’t decided yet what to do about the book sitting at the library waiting for me… I’ll probably still pick up my hold copy of The Giver of Stars and at least start it, but between the hints of something being off here and the fact that this might be repetitive storytelling for me, I’m not sure that my heart is in it any more.

Would love to hear other readers’ thoughts on this!

Note: The photo above, as well as lots of terrific information on the Pack Horse Librarian project, can be found on the Wednesday’s Women website at https://wednesdayswomen.com/good-reads-in-wild-places-the-wpas-pack-horse-librarians/ 

Book Review: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

In 1936, tucked deep into the woods of Troublesome Creek, KY, lives blue-skinned 19-year-old Cussy Carter, the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry. The lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian, riding across slippery creek beds and up treacherous mountains on her faithful mule to deliver books and other reading material to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky.

Along her dangerous route, Cussy, known to the mountain folk as Bluet, confronts those suspicious of her damselfly-blue skin and the government’s new book program. She befriends hardscrabble and complex fellow Kentuckians, and is fiercely determined to bring comfort and joy, instill literacy, and give to those who have nothing, a bookly respite, a fleeting retreat to faraway lands.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a powerful message about how the written word affects people–a story of hope and heartbreak, raw courage and strength splintered with poverty and oppression, and one woman’s chances beyond the darkly hollows. Inspired by the true and historical blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the brave and dedicated Kentucky Pack Horse library service, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek showcases a bold and unique tale of the Pack horse Librarians in literary novels — a story of fierce strength and one woman’s belief that books can carry us anywhere — even back home.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is such a different, powerful story, bringing together several elements to create a work that’s moving and inspiring.

Cussy Mary Carter and her father live as outcasts in the Kentucky hills, shunned because of their blue skin. Cussy’s father is a hard-working coal miner who suffers from lung disease. He’s determined to secure a safe future for Cussy by finding her a husband, despite her objections. Cussy loves her work as a pack horse librarian, riding miles through the mountains each day to bring books, magazines, recipes, and household instructional pamphlets to the isolated people along her route.

Meanwhile, Cussy faces horrible mistrust and discrimination whenever she ventures into the nearby town. While her library patrons cherish her and greet her with happy cries of “Book Woman” as she rides up on her mule, the townsfolk she interacts with at the library headquarters insult her and curse her to her face, barring her from society and segregating her because she is — literally — “colored”. And while a local doctor offers Cussy and her father some meager help and protection, it’s clear that he views them as medical oddities and pursues studying them not out of a desire to truly help, but as a way to further his own career.

There is just so much to love about this book. Cussy is a loving, caring person who understands that books can lift people up and change lives. Though the reading material available to the pack librarians is all donated and unpredictable, Cussy puts thought into which books to bring to which of her patrons, choosing carefully to find just the right subject matter to help or instruct or distract or inspire her readers. As we meet the people on her route, we see just how heartbreaking their living conditions are, as the poverty-stricken people starve to death before Cussy’s eyes, and where the only source of income is the mine company, which controls all aspects of people’s lives in the mountains.

Learning about the Blue People of Kentucky is fascinating, as is learning more about the impact of the Depression on an area of the country I really knew very little about. The author does a masterful job of introducing the factual, historical elements in a way that’s organic to the story, It never feels like a history lesson; rather, this book feels personal, as if we’re being let inside the lives of living, breathing people with a unique story to share.

With its mix of historical interest, the focus on the magic and power of books, and a strong, kind, memorable main character, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a delight to read. Highly recommended.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
Author: Kim Michele Richardson
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: May 7, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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