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.

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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.

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Book Releases for the First Half of 2021

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Most Anticipated Book Releases for the First Half of 2021.

I highlighted some of the upcoming releases I’m most excited for in my winter TBR post from a couple of weeks ago — but it’s always fun to look ahead and make even more reading plans! So, here are ten MORE books releasing between now and the end of June that I’m super excited to read.

  1. The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah (2/2)
  2. A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel (2/2)
  3. Later by Stephen King (3/2)
  4. An Unexpected Peril (Veronica Speedwell, #6) by Deanna Raybourn (3/2)
  5. Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman (4/6)
  6. Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian (4/20)
  7. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (5/4)
  8. People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry (5/11)
  9. The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren (5/18)
  10. Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid (5/25)

What new releases are you most looking forward to in 2021? Share your links, and I’ll come check out your top 10!

Top Ten Tuesday: The best books I read in 2018

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Happy New Year! Welcome to 2019! 

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Best Books I Read In 2018.

According to Goodreads, I gave a 5-star rating to 73 books in 2018, and a 4-star rating to 83. That makes 156 books that I pretty much loved. Yowza, what a year! I don’t think I can limit myself to just 10 books here… so I’ll highlight a few, include a few others by category, and see how it all works out…

Here are (just a few of) my favorites from 2018:

1) Powerful family drama set in Alaska: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (review)

2) Two views of an an ancient classic: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (review)

3) Terrific historical fiction that I read because of my book group: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (review) and The Chilbury Lady’s Choir by Jennifer Ryan (review)

4) A surprising moving short novel by Stephen King:  Elevation (review)

5) Amazing woman-power science fiction:  The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (review)

6) Action/adventure with THE BEST heroic duo: Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer (review)

7) New books in beloved series:

8) Deliciously fun contemporary romance: 

9) Intriguing story collections:

10) A couple of classics that I finally read!

 

What were your favorite reads of 2018? Please leave me your link!

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Wishing one and all a terrific new year filled with wonderful books!

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Book Review: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah


Alaska, 1974.
Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.
For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if means following him into the unknown.

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.

But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.

In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska―a place of incomparable beauty and danger. The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night story about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature.

The Great Alone is many things — a portrait of life in rugged Alaska, a story of the damage done by war, a tale of the horrible secrets lurking underneath a family’s facade… and also, a story of love and devotion and commitment.

We first meet Leni as a 13-year-old who never fits in anywhere, thanks to her parents’ inability to settle. Ever since her father returned from his years as a POW in Vietnam, Leni has been pulled from home to home and school to school, as her father’s instability and nightmares make him unable to keep a job or stay put for very long. Meanwhile, Leni’s mother Cora remains madly in love with her husband Ernt, and constantly tells Leni that she wishes she could remember how he was before. Out of options, Ernt comes up with a seemingly crazy idea — they’ll move to Alaska, to a plot of land left him by a war buddy, and live off the land, off the grid, as homesteaders.

Leni, of course, has no say in this, just as she has no say in most of what happens in her life. Cora is desperate to find the answer to making Ernt happy again, so off they go in their battered VW bus, completely unprepared for the realities of the life ahead of them. When they finally reach their land in Kaneq, they find a falling-down dirty cabin, and not much else. Fortunately, the neighbors in this tiny community rally around to teach them what they need to know, with an emphasis on the all-important preparations for their first Alaskan winter.

The land and its surroundings are breathtakingly beautiful, of course… but the winter is harsh, leaving the small family isolated in their cabin for months on end. For Leni and Cora, life becomes increasingly dangerous, not because of the natural threats such as wildlife and climate, but because of the man they live with. Ernt does not do well in the dark, under stress, and he takes out his inner demons on Cora.

Over the years, the family becomes intertwined with their neighbors, and Cora and Leni develop deep bonds with their new friends, but Ernt becomes more and more obsessed with survivalism, his paranoia and nightmares becoming more and more intense. Leni grows up in the shadow of domestic violence, witnessing her father’s brutal treatment of Cora, but unable to do anything to stop it.

And as Leni matures, she falls in love with the boy who was her first friend in Alaska — but her father hates his father and everything he stands for, and it’s clear that the relationship must be kept hidden from Ernt before it pushes him into even more violence.

I have to be honest and admit that I wasn’t so sure about this book for the first third or so. I was interested, but it was slow-going. The description of Alaska and what it takes to build a life there are intriguing, of course, but I’ve read other stories about life in Alaska, so this wasn’t exactly new. I had a hard time at first with the viewpoint, as this section of the book is seen mainly through 13-year-old Leni’s eyes, and there was just something a little limiting about that. Still, it was sadly fascinating to see Leni’s experience of her parents’ toxic marriage — the loving moments, when the two were so obsessed with each other that they couldn’t see anyone else — and the explosively painful moments, when Ernt’s rage would boil over into fists and abuse.

Later, when Leni is an older teen, her story becomes much more compelling. Suddenly, I couldn’t put the book down. (Seriously, I read the 2nd 50% of the book in one sitting.) Leni’s love story builds along a Romeo and Juliet trajectory, and while we can see the inevitable tragedy looming ahead, it’s still a shock when Leni’s life is turned upside down.

In some ways, the story of Ernt’s violence is simply tragic. It’s hard not to hate him as the years go by and his craziness and violence escalate — but there’s an element of pity, too. In today’s world, his PTSD would be recognized for what it is and he’d be able to get help. In the early 1970s, just back from hellish years as a captive in Vietnam, not only was there no psychological help, but he also was subject to the derision of anti-war America when he returned. It might be easy to view Ernt as simply an evil character, but we can’t. He is horrible and abusive and destructive, but his horror stems from his own status as a victim of war and torture. We can absolutely condemn his behavior and his treatment of his family, but I can’t help but feel sorrow too for how different this man might have been without the trauma of Vietnam.

The depiction of domestic violence is harrowing but has a ring of truth. At that time, there was much less support for “battered women”, and a woman who fought back could easily end up either dead or behind bars, without much in the way of legal defense or public awareness. Seeing Leni’s need to protect her mother, and Cora’s inability to find a way to leave, is painful and tragic.

At the same time, I loved the way Leni’s life in Alaska grows. She becomes a part of the community, part of Alaska itself, and this stays with her and changes her in deep and unalterable ways.

I won’t say more about the love story or its outcome, other than WOW and SOB and TEARS and… well, read it yourself to find out!

The Great Alone is powerful and moving, with a unique setting and memorable characters. Check it out.

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The details:

Title: The Great Alone
Author: Kristin Hannah
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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