Let’s get this out of the way, Kristin Hannah is a seriously talented writer. There is no doubt about that. The Nightingale is about to be made into a movie, The Great Alone is being developed into a film, and Firefly Lane is already a show. She is a New York Times bestselling writer whose works are translated across the globe.
The Four Winds debuted at number 1 on both the NY Times bestselling list and USA Today. I can only imagine it’s a matter of time before the book gets transformed into a movie, which I think might be a mistake. (More on that later.)
So, she’s worth a read, and this book is certainly no exception.
Though being perfectly honest, I’d call it more of a vanity read and not something you do for pleasure. (I couldn’t put the book down, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it.)
This book has a significant twist. I’m going to tell you what that twist is. Read the book first and then read this.
The book traces the life of a young woman during the Great Depression / Dust Bowl. We pick up her story as a teenager living at home with her parents and follow her to her death in California. (Now you know the twist.)
It’s helpful to divide the book into smaller parts based on where Elsa, the main character, lives. The book opens with her living with her parents at home, then moves to her in-law’s farm, and finally ends in California with an epilogue back in Texas.
Elsa was sick as a child, so her parents are over-protective, limiting her time away from the family.
They also don’t think she is attractive and tell her so often. They don’t feel she will ever find a husband.
Her parents are, in fact, physically and emotionally abusive.
Elsa rebels and takes steps towards standing on her own two feet. Woot, right?
Except, the first guy she sleeps with gets her pregnant, and to boot, the sex wasn’t even remotely good. Plus, he’s engaged to marry someone else. Yikes.
So, her parents disown and kick her out, sending her to live with the boy’s parents. The in-laws also don’t want her, as their son was going to go off to college and now has to stay home and get married, to the wrong girl.
She wins them over and finds a place on the farm. She has a daughter and a son, and everything seems okay for about five minutes in the book until the Great Depression / Dustbowl happen.
The husband leaves his wife, kids, parents and flees the farm. Her son gets sick. The government comes to help, but they cannot help right away.
We get unending dust storms, in addition to one disaster after another. As a result, this part of the book is not a particularly pleasant read.
However, it also left me feeling claustrophobic; I was living through those times with Elsa. Cool right? (Credit K. Hannah)
Elsa is a rock who keeps the family together with her constant hard work. She deals with the dust bowl and depression by getting out of bed each and every day and doing her best to make life a little more livable.
The reader can’t help but admire her strength.
Her son’s health is in jeopardy because of the dust, so Elsa and her kids decide to leave the farm and flee to California, touted as the land of Milk and Honey.
As you might guess, California is in no way, shape, or form the promised land, and in fact, the family struggles to survive, living cotton harvest to cotton harvest.
They live in a field with a group of other “Okies.” Life is a constant battle, occasionally better, but never okay. She makes friends, but then her best friend dies.
She moves out of the field and into a cabin… But, she is a sharecropper who sees her family falling deeper and deeper into debt each day.
A man enters the picture.
The man is a Communist labor organizer, and attraction grows between the two.
She ponders returning to her in-law’s farm. Life has to be better back there, right? The labor organizer will drive her and the kids.
The one and only thing I wanted from the book at this point was a happy ending. It’s so close; you can almost feel it. We have love, family, stability, a home, and all they have to do is return.
A happy ending would have paid off all of my emotional investment.
However, the labor organizer does what labor organizers do and organizes a protest, and Elsa dies in the protest.
In the epilogue, the son and daughter return to the farm, which is indeed doing better. The daughter ends up going back to California for college.
This book is compulsively readable, flying from one crisis to the next. I wanted to read ahead; I yearned to Google the ending. It’s that great.
But you already know that.
Yet, I don’t know that I would recommend the book to a friend, and I certainly won’t read it again.
It’s a very well done slog through a sea of misery. Elsa is a compulsively engaging character, and we want her to be happy. We care about her, BUT she never gets the happy ending she deserves.
The ending felt quick, fake, and more than a little cheap. Elsa’s death serves no point in the plot.
Compare this to the following quote by George R. R. Martin.
“I’ve been killing characters my entire career, maybe I’m just a bloody minded bastard, I don’t know, [but] when my characters are in danger, I want you to be afraid to turn the page (and to do that) you need to show right from the beginning that you’re playing for keeps.”
Death in his books has a purpose. But, in The Four Winds, it does not.
One could argue many things about her death: Happy endings were few and far between during the Great Depression, maybe her death serves to highlight her great strength throughout her life, perhaps her death is a sort of happy ending as she can finally rest?
Maybe Hannah wrote the book this way, knowing it would generate publicity?
I don’t know.
In this case, the lack of a happy ending diminishes a book that could have been every bit as great as The Nightingale.
I will not be going to the movie.
A writer owes nothing to the reader save for respecting the reader’s time and emotional investment.
Kristin Hannah most assuredly respects our time, she doesn’t however, respect our emotional investment.
She just doesn’t give us the ending we so badly want.
It left me empty.
How about you?