The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: February 2, 2021
Genres: Fiction, Historical
I’m wrapping up what has been an odd reviewing week for me. One Monday I wrote about a book I loved, but which I read so long ago I had trouble sharing my thoughts. On Wednesday, my experience was a very good novel that would probably have been great if I could relate to the subject. Finally, here I am with a popular author who I’ve decided is not for me: Kristin Hannah. I adored The Nightingale, but almost threw The Great Alone across the room. Her latest release is The Four Winds, a novel about the Dust Bowl and the forced migration of one woman and her children to California in an effort to survive.
At 25 Elsa is considered a spinster by her family and by the town of Dalhart, Texas. Her father’s wealth means she lives a comfortable, but lonely life. In an effort to change she tries to sneak into a speakeasy and from that choice ends up disowned by her family and married to a young Italian farmer. She goes from a life of silk dresses and gloves to being a farmer’s wife—working in fields, caring for animals, living off the land. It’s a different life, but she comes to love it. Until, years later when the land known as the breadbasket of America turns into the Dust Bowl.
Prosperity vanishes as the Great Depression sinks in and the land of the Midwest, hit with drought, rebels against over-farming. Suddenly, everything Elsa and her family has worked for is gone. Everyone’s everything is gone—homes, machinery, stores, towns, people. What is left is buried in dust. When her young son gets sick with dust pneumonia they pack up and head to California for clean air and, Elsa hopes, work.
The Four Winds is a tour de force of atmosphere. Hannah’s strength is in painting scenes of vivid reality—dust so fine it sifts through boards to coat floors, cows whose milk is muddy because there is no clean grass to eat, dust storms that last weeks not days, the desperation of watching your loved ones starve. Reading the novel was like watching a documentary about the Dust Bowl: in one day a dust storm lifted 300,000 TONS of topsoil off the plains re-depositing it as far east as Washington D.C. But that’s where it ends for me. It’s as if all of Hannah’s effort goes into the setting with nothing left for the plot or characters. Against the majestic backdrop of her novels, the characters are rendered small and formulaic, with very little development. I found very little to hold onto.
If you are a diehard Hannah fan, then The Four Winds is likely to be rewarding reading. It’s a big story about a time not often covered in fiction, but it only left me with a desire to learn more about the Dust Bowl via nonfiction or to read a classic like The Grapes of Wrath.
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*I received a free copy of this book from St. Martin’s Press in exchange for an honest review.*