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Want to Know About "The Dust Bowl?" Read The Four Winds

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

But Kristin Hannah's book shouldn't be your only source

abandoned farm house under dusty sky

Kristin Hannah’s popular success

Kristin Hannah has written twenty-four books. Her book, The Nightingale, published in 2015, was wildly successful. Set in France, it looks at the very different paths two sisters take to survive the German occupation. It’s being adapted for film with Elle and Dakota Fanning taking the starring roles of the two sisters. The Nightingale has sold millions of copies worldwide. Hannah has risen to great popularity and gained the acclaim of bestseller status for numerous books. Firefly Lane, a novel about a decades-long friendship that is torn apart, was ix recently adapted into a television series starring Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke that aired this year. You may have read, or heard of, other Kristin Hannah novels: The Great Alone, Distant Shores, True Colours, and Home Front are just a few. No doubt about it. She tells a good story.

Kristin Hannah’s newest novel, The Four Winds

Hannah’s newest novel, The Four Winds, begins in the 1920s in a small Texas town. The main character is Elsa Wolcott, a lonely, twenty-five-year-old woman who suffered from rheumatic fever as a child. Elsa sees herself as unattractive and homely compared to her two other sisters. She is not married and has no prospects. Her affluent, socially conscious family loathes her for her looks and her sickliness. Enter Rafe Martinelli, a good-looking Italian youth from a nearby farm. What happens when a lonely spinster meets a rakish guy ready for action? You can guess the outcome. Elsa is kicked out of her home and makes a hasty marriage to Rafe. Overnight she becomes a farm laborer and a member of the hard-working Martinelli family. Elsa’s marriage and new life start in the 1920s on a thriving farm in Texas, but disintegrates over the next decade as the drought and dust of the 1930s make life nearly impossible. Her husband, Rafe, can’t take the pressure and leaves Elsa and her children on the farm constantly battling horrible dust storms, dying livestock, and drought-stricken crops.

The “Dust Bowl” conditions make thousands of people sick. Seven thousand people died from “dust pneumonia,” and more than a quarter-million residents fled the area because they simply couldn’t survive without water, without crops, fighting the constant threat of dust. Elsa must decide to save the life of her son who suffers from “dust pneumonia” by leaving the farm and journeying to California where all sources say there are jobs. Elsa makes the decision to leave the Martinelli farm and the in-laws she has come to love to save her children and start a new life.

Insights to what “The Dust Bowl” was like

For me, the strength of Hannah’s story is her depiction of life in “The Dust Bowl” for the families who tried to fight nature and the effects of over-cultivating the great plains. We see the daily struggles, the constant work, the bewilderment, anger, and despair at knowing that no amount of work can turn things around. Readers see the pain of farms that have been in families for generations being foreclosed on by the bank because owners can’t pay their mortgages or taxes.

B&W photo of texas farm after dust storm

“Dust Bowl in Dallas” by ashleywilson2 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Other glimpses of reality

The description of “Hooverville” camps felt real based on what I already knew about the Depression and the dire conditions working families found themselves in. Hannah goes onto explore the desperate circumstances families faced when they can’t get work after arriving in California. She depicts the horrid conditions and the appeal of working for a “company” that offered a place to live and credit at the company stores, all the while taking more and more money out of the nominal pay workers were already receiving. The more workers that arrived in the state ready to take whatever pittance was offered, only made the situation worse, and the pay lower. The Labor movement and “Communists” were part of the book’s plot as union organizers tried to convince the migrant workers to rise up against the oppression of the big growers who hired at the lowest possible rate and then cut their pay as more desperate people came. Hannah says in her “Author’s Note,” that the strike is fictional but based on strikes that took place in California.

It's a good story, but...

I’ve read several Kristin Hannah novels, and each one was a good story, quick reads with compelling action. But I don’t line up with all the critics who rave about the depth and emotional impact of her work who say things like,

“Powerful. Unforgettable. Triumphant.” Epic and transporting, a stirring story of hardship and love…Majestic and absorbing.” Outstanding…(A) rich, rewarding read about family ties, perseverance, and women’s friendships and fortitude.” Not that my opinion matters. I’m obviously NOT a bestselling author. My work has not achieved any acclaim in the publication-for-profit world of the traditional presses. I have not authored twenty-four books as Kristin Hannah has. So let me be very clear that I appreciate her work and have enjoyed her stories. Maybe it’s just her style, but to me, they always feel like “stories,” not like real-life. While I saw what daily life on a farm in “The Dust Bowl” years might be like, I didn’t really buy into the premise. First of all, I didn’t believe that an entire family would so truly dislike one daughter because she’d been ill as a child and wasn’t as attractive as her sisters. Secondly, it was too much of a stretch for me to think that a sheltered, well-to-do twenty-five-year-old woman from an affluent family in the 1920s would so readily throw caution to the wind (or the four winds) and have sex with an unknown, younger, “foreign” man on a wooden truck bed the first time they met. Hannah hits on multiple themes in this book: the love of the land, the angst-filled relationship between mother and daughter, the strength of a mother intent on protecting her children, the survival instinct, the conflict between the haves and the have-nots, the power of female friendship, and the inevitable romance. Something for everyone, to be sure. Read The Four Winds to enjoy a good story and get an inkling of what life during the Depression, the Dust Bowl years, and the massive migration to California might have felt like. But don’t make Kristin Hannah’s novel, “The Four Winds” your only source.

Perfect literary pairings

I’m all about reading several books on the same topic to get multiple perspectives and an improved overall understanding. Finding books that go together is like pairing the perfect wine with dinner — each one should complement the other and provide a fuller, richer, experience.

If you love historical fiction, (and I do,)

by all means read The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, but please don’t stop there.

You will get a much more realistic overview, and a much more in-depth, factual perspective by reading The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. Winner of the National Book Award in 2006.

The struggle you feel will be real. And, of course, team The Worst Hard Time and The Four Winds with the classic The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.


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