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: 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.

Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Title: American Dirt
Author: Jeanine Cummins
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: January 21, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Received as a gift

Rating: 3 out of 5.

También de este lado hay sueños. On this side, too, there are dreams.

Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.

Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy—two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia’s husband’s tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same.

Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier’s reach doesn’t extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?

It’s impossible to read American Dirt without awareness of the controversy surrounding this book seeping into the reading experience. Which is okay — it’s controversial for a reason, and I actually had no intention of reading this book, until a family member gave it to me as a gift. So, with hesitation, I jumped in.

American Dirt is a story of pain and violence. Lydia’s life is permanently ravaged when a cartel murder squad invades her family’s backyard celebration. Purely by chance, Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca survive, while sixteen other members of her family, including her husband, are killed. Recognizing their immediate danger, Lydia flees with Luca, knowing that the cartel won’t stop hunting them and that their only chance at safety is to head north to the US and try to cross the border.

As the book progresses, we learn more about the escalating violence in Acapulco as well as across all of Mexico, as the cartels exert more and more power. Lydia’s husband is a reporter who specializes in profiling cartel violence. Lydia herself runs a bookstore, where she ends up befriending a seemingly kind, intellectual man… who turns out to be none other than the head of the cartel ruling Acapulco. When Sebastian’s expose of Javier runs, it sets off a course of tragedy and violence that leads directly to the massacre of their family.

Lydia and Luca’s journey is harrowing, as they join the crowds of migrants riding La Bestia, the network of freight trains that run through Mexico, which migrants risk life and limb to ride atop in the hopes of making it north. Along the way, they face physical danger from the train itself as well as severe threats from police and cartel soldiers who round up migrants and inflict torture, death, and demands for ransom as part of their standard operating procedures.

Is this a good book? Not really, no. It’s dramatic for sure, and a compelling read, but it’s hard for me to actually praise it. Despite problems (more on those in a second), it’s a fast read that’s hard to put down once started. Yet the book really is more melodrama than anything else, indulging in nonstop violence and horrific situations, and presenting a portrait of Mexico as a place with not one ounce of safety or happiness.

The friendship (almost romantic) with Javier is unnecessary and feel soap opera-worthy. What are the odds that the wife of the journalist who exposes him would also be this man’s good friend and close confidante?. Why does Lydia, a woman grieving her slaughtered family, need to be also burdened by what-ifs about putting trust in Javier’s friendship?

Teen sisters Soledad and Rebeca become traveling companions for Lydia and Luca. We’re hit over the hit repeatedly with how remarkably beautiful the girls are — and, the book makes clear, how their beauty singles them out to become targets of rapists, again and again and again throughout the book. Why is their beauty relevant? Don’t women not at this pinnacle of beauty also get raped? Not in American Dirt.

The coyote who takes Lydia, Luca, and a group of others across the border is, of course, one of the good ones. He’s a coyote with a soul. Despite his tough talk and enforcement of rules, one tragedy one this journey in particular is enough to transform him and change him permanently. Really? As if he’s never lost anyone on a crossing before?

These are just a few examples, but I found the whole story to be over the top and voyeuristic. I could go on (why does it matter that Luca is a geography protege?), but I’ll turn instead to my other annoyances with this book, namely the writing.

First, the point of view shifts from paragraph to paragraph between Luca and Lydia, with no sense of why, and it’s confusing and distracting. Lydia will be thinking about something, and it’s not until midway through the following paragraph that a reference to Mami alerts us that we’re now seeing Luca’s perspective. Other character’s points-of-view are randomly included, seemingly so that the author can offer us first-person narratives of terrible experiences that Lydia wasn’t present for.

Also, the writing itself and the author’s descriptions are often over the top or simply incomprehensible. A few examples, but I could really open up the book practically at random and find more:

She loved that boy with her whole heart, but my God, there were days when she couldn’t fully breathe until she’d left him at the schoolyard gate. That’s all over now; she would staple him to her, sew him into her skin, affix her body permanently to his now, if she could. She’d grow her hair into his scalp, would become his conjoined twin-mother.

Her face is splotchy but dry, and there are dark circles beneath her eyes. Her expression is one Luca has never seen before, and he fears it might be permanent. It’s as if seven fisherman have cast their hooks into her from different directions and they’re all pulling at once. One from the eyebrow, one from the lip, another at the nose, one from the cheek. Mami is contorted.

In the half-light left over from Soledad’s corona, Rebeca glimmers like a secret sun.

Your mileage may vary, but repeatedly throughout the book, I had to pause to try to turn the author’s imagery into a picture in my mind that actually made sense. It didn’t always work.

I’m not directly addressing the controversy about the author, I realize, and that’s simply because it’s been covered elsewhere in depth. For more, I recommend:
The Seattle Review of Books: “The Dirt on American Dirt”
Tropics of Meta: Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck
Vulture: “Why Is Everyone Arguing About the Novel American Dirt?”
New York Times: “American Dirt is Proof the Publishing Industry is Broken”

I with the author had explained more about her sources or the research that went into writing this book. The migrant experience is a compelling and important topic, but I don’t feel that American Dirt is the right book for really learning about it.

It does, however, make me want to seek out more authentic accounts by #ownvoices authors. I know there’s a lot to learn — I just don’t think American Dirt is the book to learn from.