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Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Grim and Gritty, Dust Bowl Novel Also Memorable and Moving

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Because of a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, 25-year-old Elsa Wolcott has long been treated as an invalid by her wealthy family.  Lanky, awkward, and shy, she figures she'll always be a spinster, slowly suffocating to death in her parents' home.  She's shocked, then, when she meets Rafe Martinelli, an Italian-American farmer, who pays her the kind of attention she's only read about in romance novels.  The Wolcotts will never accept him as a suitor—he's a blue collar worker, a penniless dreamer, and a "foreigner" to boot.  Elsa and Rafe's secret romance turns into a hasty marriage when a pregnant Elsa is kicked out of her parents' home.  Although the Martinellis are not thrilled with the situation either, they accept Elsa into their fold, soon recognizing what the Wolcotts never have—Elsa is a quick learner, a hard worker, and a person adept at making the best of a bad situation.

By 1934, Elsa is a poor farmer's wife, who is beloved by her in-laws but ignored by her parents and treated with indifference by a husband who is increasingly distant and depressed.  When Rafe abandons Elsa, their young children, and his family's farm, she is left to struggle along with the senior Martinellis to turn a profit from the dying land.  Between the choking dust, the country's desperate financial situation, and the constant work of farming and caring for a family, Elsa is at the end of her rope.  Many of the residents in her Texas town have already fled the Dust Bowl, headed for California, the land of opportunity.  Should Elsa stay or go?  Can she really find salvation in The Golden State?  What will become of her, her elderly in-laws, and her young children?

Kristin Hannah has become known for writing sweeping, emotional sagas about families fighting to survive in difficult situations.  Her newest, The Four Winds (available February 2, 2021), is no exception.  With a setting so vivid you can feel grit stinging your eyes, Hannah paints a grim, gut-wrenching picture of life in the Dust Bowl during The Great Depression.  There's no more sympathetic character than a tireless mother who will do anything to save her children and Elsa is absolutely that.  She's a complex, brave, admirable woman whose determination makes her relatable and root-worthy.  While I found Hannah's depiction of "Okie" life in California fascinating, her descriptions are so vivid, so heartbreaking, that I'm not sure I'll ever forget them.  The Four Winds concludes with an interesting twist, one I didn't much care for; still, the ending feels not just satisfying, but also hopeful.  Despite its bleakness, I found this novel absorbing, moving, and memorable.  It's because of books like this that I've become a big Kristin Hannah fan over the last few years.  I can't wait to see what she does next!

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other stories about the Dust Bowl and The Great Depression, like The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows, and A Promise to Break by Kathryn Spurgeon)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder expletives), violence, sexual content, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Four Winds from the generous folks at St. Martin's Press via those at NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

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