There are few book announcements that get me more excited than news of a forthcoming Kristin Hannah book. I first became a fan when I read The Nightingale several years ago; I loved it so much that I shared it with my favorite student, and it became his favorite book too. Hannah has a way of writing historical characters that are startlingly relatable, and of painting such vivid pictures of the past, that you almost feel like you can touch, smell, and taste the world in which her characters are living. Her books are conversation starters, relationship building blocks, and cautionary tales about the lessons we should not forget from history. I was happy to find that The Four Winds was no different, and although the Great Depression is not my favorite time period to study, I found myself thoroughly engrossed in the tale of Elsa Martinelli within just a few pages.
Although I have spent many years teaching students about the horrors of the Dust Bowl, the desperate flight of the Okies towards California, and of the time period’s racist and classist tensions, I was still enthralled by Hannah’s descriptions and observations about ordinary life. At first I felt like too much time was being spent on describing the privation experienced by people on the Great Plains, but then I realized that the pages upon pages detailing the extreme heat, the lack of food and water, and reliance on the Red Cross for medical care for those suffering from dust pneumonia, served a powerful purpose. The farmers of the Great Plains valued their land, and their independence, above almost anything else, leading them to face starvation, dehydration, sickness, and loneliness if it meant holding onto that land for just a little bit longer. Unless one can understand that, it would be impossible to understand why someone would have a hard time deciding to leave, because for Elsa it is only true desperation that drives her to leave her home and head west.
As a student of history I also appreciate the time Hannah took in describing the labor crisis caused by the influx of migrants to California, leaving them to live in cycles of poverty and abuse by the land owners, just to put meagre rations on the table. The fight for rights and living wages for migrant workers, including strikes and sit-ins are detailed with care in the book, giving us plenty to think about in terms of our own modern economic conditions. The story is a grim one, devoid of any sugar coating or unlikely lucky breaks. But it is also a story about the values of family, of standing up for moral principles, and of accepting love even when it is least expected. You won’t walk away from this book feeling happy, but I think you will feel happy that you read it and took the time to consider the lessons of the past.
TLK, if you read this, it was such a privilege to be your teacher. <3