Novel Approach: Depression-era tale ‘The Four Winds’ feels poignant during pandemic

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”— Lucius Annaeus Seneca

We read for a variety of reasons. We read to explore new worlds and cultures, to learn, to feel comfort, to feel understood and of course to escape into another person’s head for a while.

Our latest read feels particularly timely during the pandemic as it follows a family’s struggles to survive the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and the wretchedness of poverty during the 1930s.

‘The Four Winds’ by Kristin Hannah

In her latest novel, Kristin Hannah weaves a tale of resilience during the Great Depression. “The Four Winds” is told from the perspectives of Elsa and her daughter, Loreda, as they struggle to survive on their Texas farm during the Dust Bowl.

When Elsa’s husband abandons his family, Loreda blames her mother and offers her the special cruelty only a teenager can fling at her mother. Elsa is doggedly hopeful that life at the farm can turn around, while Loreda thinks the family should leave their barren and battered farmland behind.

When the family realizes staying in Texas is no longer an option, they travel to California in hope of finding work, only to find that the locals hate their poor neighbors and the large farms are more than willing to exploit their labor.

“The Four Winds” is not a happy story, but it is a beautifully written novel about poverty and hardship that forces people to reexamine how they perceive poverty and gain an understanding of just how dire the struggle to survive was for people during the Great Depression.

Hannah explores how the Dust Bowl migrants were otherized by their wealthier peers simply for having the tenacity to build a life for their families.

This otherization feels particularly poignant when we look at how divided and polarized society has become today, with tensions increasing throughout the pandemic. When times are hard, people often try to push the blame on those they deem different from themselves.

While socioeconomic divisions are prominent in “The Four Winds,” the complex relationship between a mother and daughter is at the heart of Hannah’s novel. Elsa and Loreda each display incredible bravery throughout the novel in different ways.

Elsa’s bravery comes across through her dogged efforts to keep her family fed, while Loreda expresses her’s through a fiery need for action.

From the book jacket…

“My land tells its story if you listen. The story of our family.”

Texas, 1921. A time of abundance. The Great War is over, the bounty of the land is plentiful, and America is on the brink of a new and optimistic era. But for Elsa Wolcott, deemed too old to marry in a time when marriage is a woman’s only option, the future seems bleak until the night she meets Rafe Martinelli and decides to change the direction of her life.

With her reputation in ruin, there is only one respectable choice: marriage to a man she barely knows.

By 1934, the world has changed; millions are out of work and drought has devastated the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as crops fail, water dries up and the earth cracks open. Dust storms roll relentlessly across the plains.

Everything on the Martinelli farm is dying, including Elsa’s tenuous marriage. Each day is a desperate battle against nature and a fight to keep her children alive.

In this uncertain and perilous time, Elsa — like so many of her neighbors — must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or leave it behind and go west, to California, in search of a better life for her family.

If you enjoy…

Readers looking to examine complicated mother-daughter relationships might also enjoy Amy Tan’s classic novel “The Joy Luck Club.”