The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Drought, record high temps and poor agricultural practices combined in the 1930s to cause one of the worst disasters in the United States – the Dustbowl. Crops failed, livestock starved to death and people struggled to survive. Many had to abandon their farms, heading west to California and the hope of a better life.

In The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, Elsa Martinelli has settled into a happy life on the Texas farm that belongs to her husband’s family. While it is not a love match (they had to get married when she got pregnant), she grows to love her in-laws and the land. After a sheltered childhood where she was repeatedly told she was unlovable and useless, Elsa now grows into a strong, capable woman who is loved by family and friends.

When the drought first begins, no one believes it will last and people settle in to wait for rain. But the rain never comes. Instead, high winds combined with years of poor farming techniques create dangerous dust storms that will eventually give this time it’s name. To make a terrible situation even worse, it happens during the darkest years of the Great Depression – jobs are non-existent, banks are failing, homes and farms are being foreclosed.  At first the Martinelli’s are able to hang on, but as the situation worsens, Elsa’s husband abandons them, their livestock dies and no crops grow. Finally, with no viable alternative, Elsa and her two children head for California promising her in-laws, who refuse to leave their land, that they’ll return.

What follows is a horrific journey of suffering as Elsa joins the migration west along with hundreds of other refugees. When they finally reach California – which is shockingly green and vibrant – they are not welcomed at all, but forced to live in terrible conditions in makeshift camps. Jobs are scarce and pay little, the Californians mistrust the “okies” and shun them. There are large agricultural companies that hire during harvest time, but at great cost, forcing the workers to buy from the company store on credit from which they can never get out from under the debt.

Elsa, who has spent most of her life being quiet and hard working, finds herself becoming an advocate for the workers, organizing protests and seeking better conditions for all. This is dangerous work as the controlling companies will do just about anything to maintain their stranglehold. Will Elsa be able to create a better life for herself and her children and the desperate refugees? And will she ever return to her beloved farm?

I have mixed feelings about this book. Hannah is very good at spinning a story line that keeps you engaged and the story she tells here is an important one that needs to be heard. I particularly liked that this is told from a woman’s point of view; women in situations like this often take the brunt of the hardship, raising children, keeping the family together and scrambling to cook and clean and often, work a job. But be warned that it is a grim story and many, many terrible things happen to Elsa. I also felt that I had already read this story, just from a slightly different viewpoint, in the brilliant The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. While The Four Winds is certainly worth reading, if you haven’t already read it, I’d recommend that you reach for The Grapes of Wrath instead.

Online Reading Challenge – September

Hello! It’s September! Time for our next Online Reading Challenge! This month the theme is: the Great Depression.

Well, that isn’t a very cheerful thought, is it? A devastating economic crash coinciding with severe drought and dust storms brought a decade of struggle and suffering. Yet this time period also gave rise to what Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation”, a generation that would make it through the Depression and go on to fight in World War II. It also produced some great literature and the time period continues to be popular with authors. There’s lots to explore and experience through books (and movies), but I have expanded this month’s definition to “between the wars” which will include the Roaring 20’s. The choice is yours! Here are some ideas to get you started.

If you want to go classic/literary, you’ll find lots and none of them are “stuffy”. If you have never read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck first of all, shame on you. Second, go read it now. (The movie, starring Henry Fonda, is also excellent). Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is set during the Spanish Civil War, a precurser to WWII. Surely everyone has read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee by now, but if not, it’s highly recommended. Lost Horizon by James Hilton is an adventure story about the discovery of the mysterious Shangri-La.

The 1930s saw a dramatic rise in the popularity of professional and organized sports. One of my favorite books (easily in my top three) is Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, not only for the tales of horse racing (which I love) but for the setting. Under Hillenbrand’s skillful hands, the 1930s come to life with the reality of a hardscrabble existence, the vivid characters, the hopes and dreams of people fighting for a better life. Another favorite is The Boys in the Boat by Dan Brown about a team of scrappy rowers that go to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Both of these qualify as can’t-put-down.

For many years my go-to book recommendation for patrons was Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. Everyone loved it, no exceptions. The movie took away some of it’s shine (the book is better), but it’s still very much worth reading.

More great fiction set during the 1930s include Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Atonement by Ian McEwan, Shanghai Girls by Lisa See and The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas. There’s lots of great non-fiction too including Little Heathens by Mildred Kalish about farm life in Iowa, A Square Meal: a Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman and The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan.

See? I told you – lots of great books to choose from! Be sure to visit our Davenport library locations for displays of these and many more titles.

As for what I’m going to read, I’m planning on reading Love and Ruin by Paula McLain which is about Martha Gellhorn, a famous war correspondent and Hemingway’s third wife. As always, I reserve the right to change my mind!

Now, what about you? What are you going to read this month?