“The Four Winds” give taste of life during the Dust Bowl | Book review
In 1921 Texas and across most of the United States, things were good! Crops were plentiful, rains were plentiful and the country was booming after World War I. Farmers were able to expand their land holdings and upgrade to new equipment.
Elsa Wolcott is the 25-year-old daughter of the local farm equipment store owner. As a young girl of 14 she had rheumatic fever and her parents were told that because of this she should always take it easy. She was not to get over-excited or to exert herself, so her parents pull her from school and for the next 11 years she was basically confined to her house. She was allowed to go to church and the library. Elsa immersed herself in books. She is taller than her sisters and not “as pretty,” as her parents are always quick to point out.
Because of her treatment by her family her self-confidence is pretty much non-existent, but finally she is fed up with the treatment, and treats herself to a new dress, cuts her hair and goes to the local speakeasy, because she wants to hear the music. But, with little knowledge or experience with people, she doesn’t make some of the best choices.
Her rebellion against her parents sets her on a path that she could never have imagined. Once it is discovered that she is pregnant, her parents basically drag her to the family of the young man and throw her on their mercy and leave her there.
Enter the Martinelli family, a hard-working immigrant family from Italy. Rafe, the first one born in this country, was to be the first in the family to go to college. Now he must take a wife and grow up and be a husband and father.
His mother, Rose, is a fierce woman, who does not approve of Elsa, but she nonetheless takes her under her wing. After all, she doesn’t understand how a young woman of her age doesn’t know how to cook!
On the day that Elsa gives birth to her daughter, Loreda, Rose tells her that she will never love anyone as much as her child and that same child will cause her the most pain in life.
Jump ahead to 1934, after years of no rain and failing crops, topped with the winds that came, blowing almost nonstop, displacing millions of pounds of dirt. People breathing in the dirt were dying of dust pneumonia, often referred to the “brown plague.” The despair of the farm’s failure got to be too much for Rafe, so one night he just walks away.
Not long after that a dust storm worse than any other hits, burying farms, fences, vehicles and livestock left out. Elsa, Rose and Tony attend a meeting that tells them the federal government will pay them NOT to plant crops. They will buy their livestock and then when the rains do come again they must plant differently. But, how can they survive if they don’t plant and sell off their livestock?
The final straw for Elsa is when Ant, her young son, is hospitalized with the brown plague. He survives, but she knows they cannot stay in Texas anymore. They, like so many other hundreds, leave, and with the stories of jobs in California that is where the family plans on going. However, the senior Martinellis could never leave their land.
So, Elsa and the two children make the journey west, in an attempt to start over.
Needless to say, the stories that have led everyone to California have been greatly exaggerated! With so many people coming in, the jobs are far and few between combine with people NOT wanting to hire the transplants. Many did not trust the people coming in from Texas, Oklahoma and the other devastated states. Treating them like criminals, calling them names, totally forgetting that these were Americans too, just looking for a way to support and take care of their families.
Consequently most are forced into working the fields. Taking over the jobs of picking crops that had been done by Mexican migrants.
Like those before them, a lot followed the different crops up and down California. But, for Elsa that was not an option. When the kids weren’t needed in the fields, she wanted them in school. The only way for that to happen was to stay in one location. She thought that she had been lucky to get a house and a spot on a grower’s crew, which would allow that. But, she quickly found out how wrong she was. The rent was taken from their pay. They could only cash their checks at the company store, and they didn’t use cash, they used a chit system, so that the workers could never save any money and make progress to get on their feet, and get back their own self-esteem that the storms and the mind numbing, back breaking work has taken from them.
For many the only light at the end of this ordeal was in the union organizers. Some of them were communists; some were not. They just wanted to get the people that were cutting pay, treating the workers like slaves to do the right thing. But, the workers were scared to join unions. They knew that the land owners controlled whether they worked or not, no matter how little they were being paid.
Elsa and Loreda must make the choice to join with striking farm workers or not, to make a stand for what they believe in.
Like so many of Kristin Hannah’s books, this book doesn’t have a super happy ending, but it has an ending that seems to be realistic and plausible. Because not all of our choices have perfect happy endings.
There were places in the book I could see so many of the pictures I have seen of the Dust Bowl come to life in the characters, making me really feel for them and what they were going through.
“The Four Winds” is available at the Sterling Public Library as a hardback book or on Overdrive as an e-book or an audio book.
Dorothy Schreyer is a Library Associate at Sterling Public Library.