The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press, 2021)
We can’t quibble that Kristin Hannah is one of the most respected authors on the contemporary scene. Her new book, The Four Winds, is number 1 on the New York Times Book Review. Hannah is a wonderful storyteller, who frequently uses the theme of the importance of family in our lives, which is a universal theme, and easy to relate and react to our own experiences. The value of family life is the predominant theme of The Four Winds as well.
However, for me The Four Winds missed the mark. Set during the Great Depression in the 1930s, the novel follows the saga of the Martinelli family, trapped in the Dust Bowl of the Texas Plains. The depiction of the horrors of living through dust storms so wild that they clog the lungs of the people who are trying to eke out a living from the arid and cracked soil is strong and horrifying.
Not since John Steinbeck penned The Grapes of Wrath has the subject of the Dust Bowl, that caused so much destruction, been tackled in such excruciating detail. Hannah’s backdrop of the farmers' struggles to survive and later in the novel, the plight of migrant workers in California as they poured into the “Promised Land,” shows that she has researched the time period dutifully and painted a disturbing picture for readers to conceptualize.
Another facet that is incorporated into The Four Winds is the fledgling fight to unionize the downtrodden migrant workers, and the horrible treatment they receive from those owners of the huge cotton plantations. The wealthy land barons keep an eagle eye on those who dare to attend meetings to organize and demand better working conditions and fair wages. Anyone caught at the gatherings is ordered off the land immediately, or suffers an even worse fate.
These aspects of the novel are reasons to read the book. However, the failure of The Four Winds is the creation of thoroughly unlikeable characters. The protagonist, the long suffering Else Wolcott, is particularly annoying. Having been shunned by her family for being too homely to catch a man, she suffers from low self-esteem, and she doesn’t get any better throughout the course of the story. This is one of the major issuesI have with the novel.
Else does marry Rafe Martineli, after a contrived one night stand, who leaves her pregnant and disgraced. She and Rafe live and work on his parents’ farm. The Martinellis are of their longstanding tradition of working the land, producing grapes and other small crops of high quality, and owning a few animals necessary to live off the land. Else adores her in-laws and gets the respect from them that she never got from her own family.
Despite his respect for his parents and wife, as well as his obligation to his two children, Rafe leaves his family and farm and sets off for a better life for himself. This departure did not ring true to me and Rafe’s selfish behavior is abhorrent. “You’re a good woman, Else,” he tells her before running off to save himself. Of course, Rafe’s desertion doesn’t help Else’s self image.
The biggest problem with The Four Winds is the ending of the novel, which is unsatisfying. Without spoiling the final pages of the book, I will say that after all that Hannah puts Else through, her courage, her determination to keep her children safe and alive, we are not given an uplifting conclusion. It can be argued that not every book has a happy ending, but after all the tribulations that The Four Winds puts the characters through, a more solid ending would have made us feel that the long journey through the pages had been worth it..
Although The Four Winds doesn’t measure up to my favorite Hannah book, The Great Alone, I would still advise people to read it, particularly if you are a fan of Hannah’s work.