1934, book review, broad-brush portrayals, cardboard villains, Dust Bowl, evocative descriptions, Grapes of Wrath, historical fiction, John Steinbeck, Kristin Hannah, strong story, Texas Panhandle, weak characterization
Review: The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah
St. Martin’s, 2021. 448 pp. $29
The Texas Panhandle in 1921 seems a place thrumming with promise and possibility. But as Elsa Wolcott turns twenty-five, she sees only a life relegated to a forgotten shelf. Stricken by rheumatic fever at age fourteen, she believes herself frail, a theme her parents harp on to keep her isolated and cooped up out of sight. They find her physically unappealing, and apparently that’s grounds to pretend she doesn’t belong to them.
As a result, Elsa’s only friends are books, and her family’s there to remind her that she’s too old and plain to marry. Nevertheless, in her first act of rebellion, she sneaks out one night, latches onto an eighteen-year-old farm boy named Rafe Martinelli, and winds up having to marry him.
Elsa’s family disowns her—natch—but the Martinellis are also displeased, especially since Rafe was headed to college. Still, they’re warm people, unlike the Wolcotts, and Elsa throws herself into farm life, working harder than she’d ever thought possible, shedding her supposed frailty. Rafe and she have two surviving children, Loreda and Anthony, and the land rewards the Martinellis with sustenance and a decent living.
Until 1934, that is, when the soil starts to blow away in what would later be called the Dust Bowl. As their lives and dreams crumble to smithereens, the Martinellis struggle to keep their faith in the land—or Rafe does. Loreda, now twelve, merges his discontent with her own, for which she blames Elsa, having precociously arrived at adolescent logic.
Hannah’s venture into John Steinbeck territory re-creates the hardships, brutality, despair, and occasional acts of kindness that mark The Grapes of Wrath. I like her physical descriptions very much; you can feel the hot wind, taste the grit in your mouth, feel it in your eyes:
All the trees that lined their driveway were dying. The hot, dry years had turned them a sick gray-brown; their leaves had turned into crunchy, blackened confetti and been swept away by the wind. Only three of them were even still standing. The dusty soil lay in heaps and dunes at the base of every fence post. Nothing grew or thrived in the fields. There was not a blade of green grass anywhere. Russian thistles—tumbleweed—and yucca were the only living plants to be seen. The rotting body of something—a jackrabbit, maybe—lay in a heap of sand; crows picked at it.
The Four Winds works best as a panorama of the Dust Bowl, in which story matters more than characterization, though I admire Hannah’s readiness to test her characters and find them wanting. Where the narrative focuses on the hardships, literally grounding the reader in that grit, putting setback after setback in the characters’ way, this story grabs you. It’s also obvious how the novel evokes present-day hatred of migrants.
Rather too obvious, though, which points out the undercurrent of righteousness that mars The Four Winds. The antagonists are 100 percent villains, motivated solely by snobbery, greed, selfishness, or the inability to love. I believe Elsa’s masochism and utter lack of self-esteem, but I don’t believe the over-the-top parents who shaped her that way.
A subtler psychological portrait could have achieved the same result while adding nuance, maybe granting the parents a redeeming trait or two. (I also wonder how in blazes they named their daughter Elsinore; I can’t help think it’s a literary allusion, and if so, it falls flat.) I’m even tempted to say that the novel should start with the Dust Bowl, though the pages leading up to it do turn quickly. It’s just that the wicked queen/stepmother is an old, old trope and too easy by half.
Likewise, the villains belonging to the latter part of the book have no faces, and though their fiendishness is detestable, I can’t see them as people, only symbols. Since that’s precisely how they view the have-nots gathering at their gates, in a sense, Hannah’s perpetuating the sort of misperception based on prejudice that she decries. A similar broad-brush approach hampers the portrayal of the all-important Elsa-Loreda relationship, in which each character seems to play only a single note, shorthand for the dominant trait that defines them—reduces them, actually.
I wish too I found complexity in several scenes meant to convey tenderness or love, where the language suddenly turns generically sentimental, a contrast to the spare, sharp edge that marks the more compelling scenes of the narrative. Especially toward the not-quite-plausible end, emotional transitions carry a Hollywood tone, as though Hannah can’t bear to leave any negative feelings lying around.
The Four Winds is a decent novel, but the sort that fades once you put it down. I’d have liked it better had the author not pumped the pedal marked “Redemption” quite so hard and given her characters more angles to work with, and against.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.