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 Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson *****

thewarmthofothersunsIf you have any interest whatsoever in African-American history; American history in general; or Black Studies, this book should already be on your shelf. It is one of the most important volumes to have been written in decades, a comprehensive yet readable and enjoyable look at a migration that dwarfs the smaller California Gold Rush and Dust Bowl migrations in size and scope. Black folks started to leave the south as Jim Crow became entrenched. They did so often at their peril; Caucasians who wanted that cheap and servile day labor were so violently opposed that Blacks planned their departure, in many cases, with the utmost secrecy, buying the train ticket from their own backwater hamlet to a nearby town so no one would suspect they really meant to go to Chicago, Milwaukee, Washington DC, New York City, or any of a number of places in the north and west where there was no official Jim Crow.

Though they still faced a disappointing amount of racism, from segregated neighborhoods to hotels that magically became “full” just long enough for the Black traveler to get back into the car, things were much less tense in their newly found homes. Like immigrants who come to the US from Third World countries, they found that although they did not yet possess the things the White man had, regardless of their own professional qualifications, they did enjoy a better standard of living and lived under less fear than they had back in Mississippi, Texas, or any other part of the Jim Crow south. Some grew homesick and went back where they’d come from, but most did not.

Wilkerson received a Guggenheim fellowship to help support the vast amount of research-related travel and time it took to compile this masterly piece of research, for which she used over 1,200 interviews. Her scholarship is meticulous. Every speck of information provided by a primary source is backed up. She won the Pulitzer for this book, and that is not surprising.

In my own reading of this work, in which she follows the stories of three individuals, interlacing their stories with her more journalistic reporting of the facts on the ground, I found it helpful to skip to the section in which she explains her methodology, before I read further. Thus, I read the introduction, then skipped to the methodology (since I had initially wondered what good 1,200 interviews did if we were going to just follow three, but she cleared that up quite nicely), then the main body of writing, start to finish.

It’s a large tome, and I usually restrict my reading of physically large works to a small portion of each day due to my own issues with arthritis and pain. That went out the window while I read this. It is anything but dry; I could not put it aside. It was as riveting as the most unforgettable biography or memoir, and I kept reaching for sticky notes to mark passages I found particularly compelling.

Sometimes I end my reviews by suggesting a particular book is worth reading, but only if you can get it free or cheaply. Not this time. This is a book the serious reader will want on his or her bookshelves. It is one to refer back to again and again after having read it. If you don’t own it yet, go out and buy it. I hope that in the near future, it will become one of those books that every scholar will be expected to have read in order to be taken seriously. It’s that important…and how lucky we are that it is also fun to read!