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 Great Alone

the great alone

The Great AloneKristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.

Summary: A family moves to the wilderness of Alaska, hopefully for a new start for Ernt Allbright, a former POW in Vietnam, only to discover that in a beautiful and dangerous wilderness, the greatest danger may lay in their own cabin.

Ernt Allbright has inherited a piece of land in wilderness Alaska from a fellow POW who didn’t make it. Ernt did, but he was not the same fun-loving man Cora married when she found herself pregnant with Leonora, “Leni” to everyone who knew her. Ernt is volatile and paranoid, dominated increasingly by survivalist ideas, and unable to hold a job. Today, he would be diagnosed with PTSD. That wasn’t talked about then.

Alaska could be a new beginning. They pile into a VW van, 13 year old Leni with her books, finally arriving into the town of Kaneq on the Kenai peninsula. Almost immediately the town takes them under their wing, teaching them what they must know to survive the beautifully dangerous place they are in. Canning vegetables and fruit, smoking salmon, trying to bag a bull moose. Winter is long, and survival is tough. But it seems like the new beginning could happen except for some disturbing signs. At a town welcome, Ernt immediately hates the town father, Tom Walker. And then the nights get longer, and the moods get darker, and while they learn of the dangers without, the greatest danger is Ernt himself.

Meanwhile, Leni throws herself into the chores, the one room school, and the rugged beauty of this place. After one winter, the town intervenes and compels Ernt to leave each winter to work on the pipeline while Cora and Leni maintain the homestead. The one classmate her age is Matt Walker, Tom’s son. They become friends.

Then one of the Alaska tragedies occurs. Matt and his mother are on a hike over ground they knew. Crossing a frozen river, the ice breaks and Matt’s mother is swept away before his eyes while he can do nothing. He goes away to Fairbanks to stay with his sister, and work through the horrible loss with a counselor. Leni writes him and her letters, his sister’s love, and the counselor’s work brings him through. He returns to Kaneq for his senior year of school, and a friendship blossoms into love.

Dangerous love. Large Marge, the gritty general store owner has taken Leni under her wing, providing her a job, even as the enmity between Ernt and Tom Walker grows. This love is the lighting of a match to a powder keg. The greatest danger may be to Cora, who absorbs the anger and physical abuse of Ernt. The whole town knows, and wants to help, but Cora will not press charges. Leni struggles between how she might endanger her mother, and her longing for Matthew’s love, and an escape to college, from this sick family system. And Matthew, having lost one love, will not let go, a reality that will play out in costly ways.

The book takes us inside spousal abuse, helping us understand why spouses may bear so much abuse and not flee. There is fear, and ugliness, and yet also love, a distorted love that stays and conceals despite the danger. It also captures the rugged beauty that draws people to Alaska, some running away from something, others running to something. But it is more than beauty. The struggle for survival either makes or breaks people. It makes Leni as well as Cora, whose strengths are often hidden even from her in her subordination to Ernt, and yet will emerge.

It’s also a book about the various forms of love, from the twisted love of Ernt and Cora, the love of mother and child, and the love of Matthew and Leni. Even more, it is the love of a town that will not be divided by Ernt’s paranoia, a town that finds quiet, rugged ways to love without violating boundaries, the commonsense love that binds a community together in “the great alone.”

One of the best books I’ve read in recent years was The Nightingale. This is a very different book but joins The Nightingale in that category for me. Hannah’s description of the beautiful and terrible landscape, her memorable characters (I absolutely loved Large Marge–every community needs someone like her), and riveting plot all captured me. We experience it all through the eyes of Leni, her struggle, her wonder, her growing love, and growing awareness of what is not right in her home. As she matures we see her live in the tension of heart-breaking hard and necessary choices, and holding the one she loves, the place she loves in her heart.

Review: The Nightingale

The Nightingale

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

Summary: The story of two sisters, estranged from each other and their father, a poet and bookseller, broken by World War I and the loss of his wife, as they face the Nazi occupation of France, how each resists this brutal regime, and how they find reconciliation and a kind of healing in the end.

“In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.”

There are some books that keep you up at night because you can’t put them down. This was different. This story kept me up at night after I had laid the book down, drawn into the choices faced by the characters, the brutality they suffered, and the profound grief that comes of love and loss. I’ve read other books with “heavy” content, but rarely have I been touched as I was in reading this book.

The book opens in 1995 in the voice of the aged narrator, having lost her husband and been diagnosed with terminal cancer and attended by Julien, her surgeon son. She opens a trunk, comes across an identity card for Juliette Gervaise. We subsequently learn that the narrator has been invited back to a reunion of passeurs in Paris, those who had smuggled people out of Nazi-occupied France. And this leads to a narrative of the lives of two sisters, estranged from each other, and from a father, Julien Rossignol, who had faced the Germans in an earlier war, and whose life was broken because of it.

The two sisters are Vianne and Isabelle. Vianne, the older, had fallen in love, conceived a child out of wedlock, and married her lover, Antoine, making a home and an idyllic life in rural France. Isabelle, the younger and seemingly more-headstrong, moved from finishing school to finishing school, consigned to them by a widower father, living as a bookseller in Paris, who did not want to be involved in bringing up either of his daughters. Yet Isabelle ends up in Paris with her father, expelled from yet another school, and distant from a sister who seems to want nothing to do with her.

Into all their lives comes the Nazi threat to France. Antoine is called up to military service along with the husband of Vianne’s best friend Rachel de Champlain, a Jewish emigre’ to France. The confidence in their fighting men and the defenses of the Maginot Line are shattered as the Nazis invade and approach Paris. Isabelle flees, trying to get to Vianne’s home, survives the brutal strafing of fleeing civilians, and falls into the company of a radical, Gaetan, one of those dedicated to the French resistance. He wins her heart, then leaves her after they arrive at her sister’s.

For a time, Isabelle stays, in a relationship made more tense by the presence of a German officer, Captain Beck, billeted in Vianne’s home. Secretly, Isabelle is already enlisted in the resistance cause, while Vianne is faced with the quandary of living with an enemy, who yet seems a decent man. She errs in reluctantly giving the names of those who are Jews and communists in the school in which she teaches, including, her friend Rachel’s.

From here, the plot unfolds in a series of heroic, and sometimes tragic, choices against the backdrop of increasing German brutality. Isabelle becomes the Nightingale (her last name is Rossignol, the French for “nightingale”), and with the aid of her father, working for the Germans but secretly aiding the resistance, becomes Juliette Gervaise, smuggling downed pilots over the Pyrenees to freedom until finally captured by the Germans in the last months of the war. Meanwhile, Vianne, under the nose of SS officer Von Richter who has taken the place of deceased Captain Beck, is able to rescue 19 Jewish orphans, including Rachel’s son, paying for her work in the end by the violation of her own body.

The succession of tragic events these women and their father face are the history of the Holocaust, and the terrible banality of evil and brutality of act that characterized Nazism. Sometimes we become inured to so much evil, but this story brought that evil to life in the experiences of Isabelle, and Vianne, and their friends and, particularly, the children, that brought it up close and personal once more, a powerful use of fiction to document the fact of the Nazi horror.

The loves of each, including Julien Rossignol, the father, and the terrible exigencies of war do indeed shape and define their characters, and in ways I cannot reveal without giving away the end, result in the healing of estrangements among them. The narrator’s closing words speak of the triumph of love and goodness in the end:

“Wounds heal.
Love lasts.
We remain.”