The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah****-*****

“‘My grandfather was a Texas Ranger. He used to tell me that courage was a lie. It was just fear that you ignored.’ She looked at him. ‘Well, I’m scared.’

‘We’re all scared,’ he said.”

Kristin Hannah’s electrifying new novel, The Four Winds, is set during the Great Depression in the American Dust Bowl and California. It’s a story about courage, and about the ways that love can transform us. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the invitation to review. It’s for sale now.

Elsa is born into a wealthy family, but this doesn’t do her much good. She is tall, ungainly, and considered homely by her parents, a contrast to her two younger, more adorable sisters. She was very ill when younger, and the family liked having her tucked away in her room so much that they would like her to remain there. When company comes over, it is suggested that she go “rest.” Affection and kindness are denied her entirely.

One day, in a fit of unheard-of rebellion, she buys herself a silk dress and sneaks out to a speakeasy. There she meets Rafe, and before long she is rolling in the hay. When the morning sickness comes upon her, her furious father drives her to the Martinelli farm, (“Italians, no less!”) and she is unceremoniously dumped there. The baby is a Martinelli, he tells them, and it—and its mother—are your problem now.

Rose and Tony Martinelli are not affluent like Elsa’s parents; she learns to haul water and do farm chores, and she learns how to make delicious, cheap food the Italian way. But her father’s abandonment is a blessing in disguise, because the Martinellis are good people. She is happy there with them. She marries Rafe, and she bears two children. But the land has been over-farmed, and soon the dust storms come and destroy nearly everything they have built:

Past the outhouse, a murky, urine-yellow haze burnished the sky. Wind picked up, barreled across the farm from the south. A board flew off the chicken coop and cracked into the side of the house. Rafe and Tony came running out of the barn. The cows mooed angrily and pushed into each other, pointing their bony butts into the dust storm.

The door opened. Rose yanked her to her feet, pulled her into the rattling, howling house.

Elsa and Rose ran from window to window, securing the newspaper and rag coverings over the glass and sills. Dust rained down from the ceilings, wafted from infinitesimal cracks in the window frames and walls. The candles on the makeshift altar blew out. Centipedes crawled out from the walls, hundreds of them, slithered across the floor, looking for somewhere to hide.

A blast of wind hit the house, so hard it seemed the roof would be torn off. And the noise. It was like a locomotive bearing down on them, engines grinding. The house shuddered as if breathing too hard; a banshee wind howled, mad as hell.

Friends, this isn’t even the climax. This is sixteen percent of the way into the story. And misery and tribulation continue to rain down on this poor little family and thousands more like them. The crops die, and the livestock that doesn’t starve is killed by breathing dust. Children, including Elsa’s little boy, fall ill with dust pneumonia; no matter how hard they try to prevent it, so much dust is in the atmosphere that it makes its way into the lungs, and so the youngest and oldest are soon in trouble.

The first half of this novel is a rough read. There’s sorrow, and suffering, and loss, and grief, and I find myself eyeing the page numbers and thinking to myself that if this were written by anybody else, and if I didn’t owe a review, I probably wouldn’t finish it, because who wants an entire story of this? But at about the halfway mark, things begin to change.

By now, Rafe has hit the bricks. Never a man of character or great resolve, he sneaks off into the night, leaving the three remaining adults to care for the children and the farm. And it is now that change takes place. Without Rafe to anchor the family as is traditional during this period, Elsa is left to make the decisions about her children’s futures, and in doing so, she changes.

Hannah portrays the Depression era American West vividly and accurately, and this is when the story grows legs. The plight of agricultural workers is likewise dealt with in clear, immediate detail. My one quibble, and it is the source of the missing half star in my rating, is her inexpert portrayal of Communism, which plays more than a passing role in the last thirty percent of the story. The first time I saw farmworkers’ struggles as “shutting down the means of production,” I cleared my throat, but I told myself it was possibly a typo that might be edited out in the finished version. The next two times I saw it, I started making notes. This is not a technical error; this is a dumb-butt error (trying to elude the censors here) that should have been caught on the first pass, and because it appears when the climax ramps up, it is a distraction that interferes with the flow of the narrative.

Nevertheless, this is a well-written novel, set during an interesting time period. Particularly arresting is the development of the relationship between Elsa and her adolescent daughter, Lareda, whose point of view is shared alternately with Elsa’s.  Setting, character, and plot work together seamlessly to enforce one another and move the story forward, yet if I had to hang my hat on one laudable aspect of this book, it would be character development.

I strongly recommend this novel to you.  

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah*****

You could say I am late to the party, and you would be right. I had a chance to read a galley, but I read the synopsis and then scrolled past it. More World War II fiction? Ho hum. But the most well-worn subject matter can be made brand new in the most capable hands, and Hannah has done that. I thank the Goodreads friends that insisted I should read this book, and Seattle Bibliocommons for providing me with a copy. 

Our two protagonists are French sisters whose mother has died. Vianne, the elder sister, marries and leaves; Isabelle is sent to one boarding school after another by her grieving papa, who has nothing to give his daughters emotionally. The Nazi threat is far away and of little concern to the people of Paris—until they come closer, and then they’re here.

The Nazis sweep through Papa’s bookstore. They trash the shelves and confiscate all of his Marx, all of his Trotsky. They say these are terrorist materials. And then—they put him on their payroll.

Isabelle leaves yet another boarding school and goes home to her Papa, determined to remain at home. She receives a cold and unwelcoming return; then the Germans pierce the Maginot Line, once believed to be impenetrable, and Paris is no longer safe. Papa sends a bitter Isabelle to live with her sister, but she is traveling in the car of neighbors, and they are forced to abandon their vehicle. Isabelle is on her own.

Vianne, meanwhile, is tending to hearth and home. For years she miscarried one baby after another, late miscarriages at that, and the love her sister might have expected has instead turned to grief for the tiny people buried in a family plot in Vianne’s yard. Her husband has been conscripted, and she is alone with the one child she was able to bear. Vianne is not a risk taker, because she has too much to lose. Everything she does is in the interest of her daughter, Sophie, and her husband. Isabelle arrives and almost immediately begins making waves, behaving provocatively toward the occupying German forces, and Vianne is horrified. Isabelle has to go.

Over the course of the story both sisters are developed in a way that is so natural, so believable that I can sometimes predict what they will do, not because the writing is formulaic—it isn’t—but because I feel I know them so well now. I want to speak to the characters directly, so visceral is my reaction to them. Isabelle, who at the outset is reactive and reckless, joins the Resistance and becomes a disciplined patriot, code-named “The Nightingale”. She is still courageous, but she learns to weigh her actions against the benefits and risks to her cause. Vianne, who at the outset is conservative, becomes more willing to take risks on behalf of the Jewish children in her small community, children that are likely to either starve or be killed if they are not smuggled into safe homes.  All along, I am murmuring advice to them: “Do it! Do it!” and “Don’t you dare.”

A particularly interesting and unexpected development is the change in Papa; the drunken, abusive, uncaring lout has a side that nobody suspects, and he becomes a flawed yet heroic side character.

Once I realized that Hannah is a force in today’s literary world, I read the galley of her next novel, The Great Alone (reviewed by me also.) It was good, but nothing close to what this story is, and so I am glad I read them in this order, saving the better story as a tasty dessert.  If you haven’t read this book yet, do it now. Trust me.