Review: The Four Winds

The Four Winds, Kristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021

Summary: Set in the Dust Bowl depression era, Elsa Martinelli grows from a timid girl to a mother whose fight for her children fulfills her grandfather’s exhortation to “be brave.”

Kristin Hannah has done it again. Written a book that gets inside your head, grips your heart and does not let go. In my mind, this one holds its own with The Grapes of Wrath (review), both in capturing the conditions of the Dust Bowl and the migrant camps in California, and in its lead character, Elsa Martinelli, who holds her own with Tom Joad.

Elsa was the sickly sister of two beautiful girls, taken out of school and confined to her home after contracting rheumatic fever. Suppressed by her successful father and overbearing mother, she takes refuge in her books–and dreams of someone who will love her. She also hears the words of her grandfather, a former Texas Ranger: “Be brave.” The rest of this book is Elsa’s struggle against the verdict that she is weak, unloved, and undesirable to be brave.

It begins with sewing and an alluring dress, and setting out to find love–and she does, with Rafe Martinelli, who she ends up having to marry, abandoned by her own family. The Martinellis are farmers in the Texas panhandle. She embraces their way of life, the hard manual labor of a farm, and discovers herself embraced by Rafe’s parents, if not so much by Rafe.

Then comes the drought and the dust storms. The reader feels oneself living through the storms, breathing in the dust, developing hacking coughs, and watching one’s livelihood blown away. We watch the land die, the animals die, and Elsa’s young son, Ant, nearly die of dust pneumonia. Elsa fights for their survival, and that of her in-laws. She fights to hold onto her daughter Loreda, who blames her for Rafe’s abandonment of the family.

Against all that holds her to this family, she reluctantly leaves with her children to save Ant’s health. She calls them the Martinelli Explorers Club, as they drive west, risking the dangers of the road only to find the desperate conditions of the migrant camps, the disdain with which they are all viewed by Californians, and the heartless corruption of growers who use force, credit slavery, and desperation to keep them laboring for ever decreasing wages.

So many see Elsa’s beauty and spirit even when Elsa does not. The Martinelli’s. Eventually Loreda. Jean in the migrant camp. John the Communist. The story centers around Elsa’s awakening to who she really is–her beauty, her voice, and her bravery. We see her struggle against the message that she was unloved and unlovely and what it takes to awaken her to who she is and the lie she had accepted for so many years.

Like the other Hannah works I’ve read, The Nightingale (review) and The Great Alone (review), we observe the development of a strong female character who faces harrowing circumstances, often at the hands of men, with courage and character. Here we have men both abusive, and of great honor. Each of the latter, Elsa’s grandfather, Mr. Martinelli, and John Valen, see and affirm in Elsa far more than a sickly girl, an unchosen daughter-in-law, and a careworn mother. They point us to relationships between men and women that do not require one to be weak for the other to be strong. The strength of these men enable this woman to flourish in her own strength, the strength and the voice of a warrior.

Review: The Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Books, 1939 (original edition), 2002 (this edition).

Summary: Steinbeck’s classic narrative of the migrations of displaced farmers from the Depression Dustbowl to a California controlled by large landowners who wanted their labor as cheaply as possible while despising the influx of people.

I’m not sure how I escaped reading this book in high school. I first discovered the genius of Steinbeck in East of Eden and have been reading his other works since. I think I would probably rank this second in greatness to East of Eden of Steinbeck’s works.

The story line breaks into roughly three parts. First there is the displacement of small and eventually tenant farmers to big land-holding interests using lower cost mechanized methods that eliminated even the tenuous grip of these farmers on their way of life. Most dramatically, this is portrayed as a cultivator demolishes part of the Joad family home, making it unlivable. The second part is the migration of these families to California, where handbills advertise plentiful and good paying jobs picking California crops. The Joads, with Tom, their recently paroled son, Al, the skirt chaser who keeps the truck running, Rose of Sharon, their pregnant daughter and her husband Connie, Ruthie and Winfield, the two younger children, Ma and Pa, Grampa and Granma and Jim Casy (disillusioned preacher and eventual labor organizer) all pile on the truck with whatever belongings they can fit. We see the struggle to keep run down vehicles going across the desert, and the toll this takes as Grampa dies enroute and Granma as they arrive.

All this sets up the third part where we see these migrants unwelcome and constantly threatened by the police fearing vagrants, the terrible conditions of the Hoovervilles, and the exploitation of landowners who recruited these migrants so that they could continually cut the rates of pay as desperate people would agree to work for less and less, as families like the Joads struggle day to day to survive and fend off starvation. Most harrowing is the winter, when no work is to be had and people start dying of pneumonia and starvation.

Throughout the novel, Steinbeck uses an interesting device of narrating the tribulations of the Joad family against the larger fabric of events they represent that helps us understand the desperate straits many families faced. We also see the cruel ways the rich and powerful exploit them every step of the way.

The standout character in the story is Ma, who keeps the family fed and together when the men and her daughter are at sea in the bewildering maelstrom of the Depression and the exploitation of the destitute. In some ways, Tom Joad, who killed one man at the beginning of the book, and another later in sudden outlashings of wrath represents the simmering rage these conditions foster, captured in these words of Steinbeck that allude to his title:

“and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Steinbeck raises for us the question how long an underclass of people can be exploited and oppressed until wrath is unleashed upon a society, a question as relevant in our own day with its growing disparities of wealth and poverty, as in that of Steinbeck. It seems there is this idea that as long as men hold on to wrath, they won’t be broken.

Yet in Steinbeck’s novel, it is the value of family and of human decency in desperate circumstances that shine through again and again, represented by Ma. It is Ma who permits the shocking break of convention in the final scene to do what can be done to save a human being.

All this suggested that while wrath may accumulate and threaten like an approaching storm, the deeper and more powerful quality that truly bestows dignity on human beings is neither overweening power, nor accumulated grievance, but a compassion, a simple human decency, reflected in Ma, and in the government-run camp, that does what can be done, and somehow is enough. The novel raises for each of us the question of what kinds of measures will we choose should we face desperate times.