A Mother’s Unconditional Love

Kristin Hannah’s path to a career in writing was not as straightforward as one would expect. At one time, she worked in advertising but she knew it was not right for her. She then pursued a degree in law and became an active law practitioner. She was finally steering her life in the right direction. But life, as we all know it, has its pleasant surprises. Her mother, diagnosed with cancer, saw in her daughter the makings of a compelling writer. She told her daughter of her premonition and they even started working on the draft of a novel. However, Hannah’s mother’s death again pulled the brakes on a potential writing career. Had it not been for her husband Hannah might have pushed everything into the burner and in 1991, she finally had her first novel be published. The rest, they say, is history as she built a lucrative career that includes critically successful novels such as Firefly Lane (2008), and The Nightingale (2015). In 2021, she made her literary comeback with aptly her 21st novel, The Four Winds.

“Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when it felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going.”

Thus commenced Kristin Hannah’s latest novel. The book opened in 1921, immediately introducing the main character whose destiny it charted.  Elsinore “Elsa” Wolcott was born to an affluent family. She was also physically unimpressive and she used to be sickly, thus causing her uncaring parents to virtually lock her up in her parlor. At a young age, she got used to being treated like an invalid and an outsider. In isolation, she became a social recluse but she found camaraderie in the company of books. These books were also catalysts in awakening dreams and emotions long kept in obscurity. Starved of love, she dreamt of having her own home and hearing her children’s laughter. But there was a problem. She was turning twenty-five and unmarried. By social standards, she was considered a spinster, and her viability for marriage was virtually nil.

But Elsa was not easily disheartened. She knew that for her life to change, she must take charge of it, even if it meant going against her parents’ wishes. One moment of rebelliousness made her path cross with Rafe Martinelli, the son of Italian migrants. She knew he was the one. They got married but only after Elsa’s parents severed all connections with their daughter. The young couple, living on the Martinelli farm Rafe’s parents, had two children: Loreda and Ant. She had to adjust to her new environment. This was what she dreamt about but at the same time, it was not her idea of married life. Ideal or not, she had to make it work for herself and her children.

“As we know, there are lessons to be learned from history. Hope to be derived from hardships faced before. We’ve gone through bad times before and survived, even thrived. History has shown us the strength and durability of the human spirit, In the end, it is our idealism and our courage and our commitment to one another – what we have in common – that will save us.”

~ Kristin Hannah, The Four Winds

Elsa couldn’t catch a break as she kept encountering stumbling block after stumbling block. Her mother-in-law believed she ruined Rafe’s future. Her husband, on the other hand, has turned into a drunkard and barely cared for her. Her daughter resented her, especially after Rafe abandoned them. Although she has learned to be a great farmer, the land they were cultivating was not producing the desired results. But she had no time to be disheartened. Little did she know that, over the horizon, a far greater obstacle is about to come their way that will further test her mettle as a mother, as a woman, and as a person.

The 1930s brought with it severe dust storms that have inundated the American Southwest. With each passing month, these dust storms have become increasingly more severe, causing the death of livestock, crops, and even people. They were experiencing the so-called Dust Bowl phenomenon that swept the American and Canadian prairies. The once arable land, the very same reason that the Martinellis left Italy, has been losing its promise. Farmers all over the region were paralyzed by great losses, with some losing their lands to banks that had no qualms about foreclosing their properties. The Dust Bowl further exacerbated the economic impact of the Great Depression.

In literature, when one talks about the Dust Bowl, the book that immediately comes to mind was Nobel Laureate in Literature John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck vividly captured the debilitating effects of the Dust Bowl phenomenon. For her part, Hannah also did an equally impeccable job of painting the horrible pictures associated with the period. We read of the farmers’ struggles to make ends meet. We read of their desperation, of how they cling to every ray of hope. For a long time, they kept their faith despite the ominous signs. For many like the Martinellis, the land was part and parcel of who they are, and to give up on it was tantamount to letting go of a significant part of one’s self. Cultivating the land is the only thing they know.

Meanwhile, the government tried to alleviate the impact of the phenomenon. However, the farmers, taking pride in their hard work and their land refused to fully rely on the government. What ensued was a period where destitution and starvation have become ubiquitous. As the years passed by and no end is in sight, many passed away from dust pneumonia: the young, the old, and even the healthy. To protect themselves, people slept with gas masks on lest they wake up with their eyes crusted shut and their throats caked in dirt. It has also become common for husbands to abandon their families.

“The children’s lives would never be the same after today. Their opinions of everything would change, but especially their opinions of themselves, of the durability of love and the truth of their family. They would know forever that their father hadn’t loved their mother – or them – enough to stay with them through hard times.”

~ Kristin Hannah, The Four Winds

Another impact of the Dust Bowl phenomenon was the massive migration that took place. Over two million left the Dust Bowl states. Several of them, like Elsa and her children, traveled to California because of its promises of a better future. By then, California was turning into a popular destination and its vast plantations were brimming with promises of gainful employment. However, the refugees who were generically referred to as “Okies” regardless of their provenance were no better off in California than they were in their home states. In California, they faced more destitution, abuse, and discrimination. The capitalists were greedy and manipulative. They had the state authorities on their side and had no disinclination about exploiting the refugees.

The Dust Bowl phenomenon had certainly unmasked the proverbial American dream; beyond its glamor are ugly realities. But despite the ugly realities and the obstacles that enveloped them and blocked their paths, Elsa stood firm, a beacon that shone through the darkness. There was a silent resilience in her that kept her family from falling at the seams. She was the voice of reason. She had to make the tough choices, even if it was the unpopular one. She knew that the most important thing was to survive, not only for herself but also for her children. The survivor’s fire has always kindled in her been when she was younger. Sure, she had moments of weakness and uncertainties but she held it all together. She kept her focus and her mental faculties intact. She was made to believe she was weak but it couldn’t be any further from the truth for she was a strong and independent woman.

Through Elsa, Hannah vividly captured the tenderness of a mother’s unconditional love for her children. Her willingness to go the extra mile for them was remarkable. What makes Elsa more compelling was how she mirrored several of our sentiments. We all want to be loved and desired. Her vulnerabilities humanized her. She was also an outcast and Hannah did a commendable job of portraying her. She was the backbone of the story. Adding a layer to the story were the dynamics of Elsa and Loreda’s relationship. Both are compelling and fully drawn characters. But they can also be willful and don’t always see eye-to-eye. They have a complex and stormy on-and-off relationship that makes us want to reexamine and reflect on our own relationships with our parents. This was one of the novel’s strongest facets.

Woven into the tapestry of the story was the rise of Marxist and Communist sentiments and ideals. The 1930s saw the increasing communist sentiments all over the world. In the United States, the collapse of the economy and the abuses of the capitalists played key roles in the awakening of these sentiments, including unionism, among the overworked but underpaid American workers. Hannah made a strong case for communism where it relates to the concerns of the plantation workers. The communists were viewed unfavorably because of their demand for reasonable and livable wages befitting an honest day’s work. These discourses, however, were one of the novel’s more tedious parts.

“Love is what remains when everything else is gone. This is what I should have told my children when we left Texas. What I will tell them tonight. Not that they will understand yet. How could they? I am forty years old, and I only just learned this fundamental truth myself. Love. In the best of times, it is a dream. In the worst of times, a salvation.”

~ Kristin Hannah, The Four Winds

The novel’s various elements were carefully woven together by Hannah’s impeccable writing. The deftness of writing made the Great Depression come alive. Her writing also captured emotions. Hannah’s gaze was unflinching that the horrors of the Dust Bowl phenomenon transcend the pages. These are vivid portraits of ugly and, at times, depressing realities that can discomfit readers. Misery and death abounded. The second part of the novel was also weaker as the story turned into a good versus evil trope. The characters they meet in California were monstrosities, bordering on the cartoonish. The novel’s predictable conclusion and the melodrama also don’t do the rest of the story justice.

The Four Winds was a vivid depiction of the Dust Bowl phenomenon and how it adversely affected the lives of the farmers and the common Americans in the 1930s. Hannah’s level of research was palpable in the story. She was unrelenting in her depiction of the period, capturing its harshest and most horrific pictures with vivid details. Amidst and despite all of this darkness, Elsa found her voice. An outcast, she rose above the tumult and the obstacles that blocked her path to chart her own story. She did not let the setbacks push her down. Instead, she roared back at every challenge because she knew she had to survive, not just for herself but also, and most importantly, for her children. The Four Winds provided a rich tapestry that juxtaposed a mother’s unconditional love with rich and vivid historical details.

“The four winds have blown us here, people from all across the country, to the very edge of this great land, and now, at last, we make our stand, fight for what we know to be right. We fight for our American dream, that it will be possible again. Jack says that I am a warrior and, while I don’t believe it, I know this: A warrior believes in an end she can’t see and fights for it. A warrior never gives up. A warrior fights for those weaker than herself. It sounds like motherhood to me.”

~ Kristin Hannah, The Four Winds
Ratings

76%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 
24%
Writing (25%) – 
19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
11%

It has been over a decade since I read my first novel by Kristin Hannah, On Mystic Lake, a book I randomly picked up. I was unimpressed by the story so Hannah was pushed back to the recesses of my mind. The next time I encountered her, over a decade since that first encounter, I didn’t realize that her literary career has blossomed. Fellow readers were also singing songs of praise for her works. Still, I was a little apprehensive even when her latest novel, The Four Winds, kept getting positive recommendations. I finally relented; I wanted to know what I missed the first time. The fact that it was a work of historical fiction helped ease my worries. I have to admit, I was impressed by the book. Sure, there were uneven parts but overall, it was beautifully held together by Hannah’s writing. It also provided me more insights into the devastation caused by the Dust Bowl which was not captured by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Elsa will certainly be a memorable character. Now, I want to read more of Hannah’s work and The Nightingale seems to be an interesting prospect.

Book Specs

Author: Kristin Hannah
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 448
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

My land tells its story if you listen. The story of our family.

Texas, 1921. A time of abundance. The Great War is over, the bounty of the land is plentiful, and America is on the brink of a new and optimistic era. But for Elsa Wolcott, deemed too old to marry in a time when marriage was a woman’s only option, the future seems bleak, Until the night she meets Rafe Martinelli and decides to change the direction of her life. With her reputation in ruins, there is only one respectable choice: marriage to a man she barely knows.

By 1934, the world has changed: Millions are out of work, and drought has devastated the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as crops fail and water dries up and the heart cracks open. Dust storms roll relentlessly across the plains. Everything on the Martinelli farm is dying, including Elsa’s tenuous marriage; each day is a desperate battle against nature and a fight to keep her children alive.

In this uncertain and perilous time, Elsa – like so many of her neighbors – must make an agonizing choice: Fight for the land she loves or leave it behind and go west to California, in search of a better life for her family.

The Four Winds is a rich, sweeping novel that stunningly brings to life the Great Depression and the people who lived through it – the harsh realities that divided us as a nation and the enduring battle between the haves and the have-nots. A testament to hope, resilience, and the strength of the human spirit to survive adversity, 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.

About the Author

Kristin Hannah was born on September 25, 1960, in Garden Grove, California, USA. When she was eight years old, her family moved to western Washington state. She graduated with a degree in communication from the University of Washington. Post-graduation, she worked at an advertising agency in Seattle but she did not find it fulfilling. She then pursued a degree in law at the University of Puget Sound. Prior to pursuing a writing career, Hannah worked as a lawyer.

Hannah’s mother was the first one to recognize her writing talent, even telling her daughter of her premonition after she was diagnosed with cancer. Together, mother and daughter started working on a novel. Hannah forgot about writing when she got married but once she got pregnant her husband encouraged her to take up writing again. Finally, in 1991 she made her writing debut with the publication of her debut novel, A Handful of Heaven. Her other works include The Enchantment (1992), Once in Every Life (1992), Firefly Lane (2008), and The Nightingale (2015). Her latest published work was The Four Winds (2021). For her works, Hannah has received a handful of awards such as the 1996 National Reader’s Choice Award, The Maggie, and The Golden Heart Award. The Nightingale was also voted the book of the year by different literary publications in 2015. It also won the Goodreads and People’s Choice Awards.

Hannah currently lives with her husband and son in Bainbridge Island in Washington, USA.