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.