Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

I just finished reading Hannah’s newest book, a tribute to courage and hope during the Great Depression. The Four Winds is not a happy book. It does have its moments, but maybe this is not the best time to read it.

The heroine of The Four Winds is Elsa Martinelli, a single mother of two who, in 1935, heads to California from the Dust Bowl in the Texas Panhandle in search of fresh air for her son, who is recovering from “dust pneumonia,” a then-common ailment on the Great Plains. Just as in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, leaving the drought-ridden farm does not yield the promised land in sunny California, and her life only gets worse when they reach the San Joaquin Valley, where the family settles into a squalid camp on the banks of an irrigation ditch and become migrant field workers. One of the minor characters (and Elsa’s love interest) is based on American journalist and socialist John Reed. Hannah references his book Ten Days That Shook the World in the story; you might remember a handsome Warren Beatty playing him in the movie Reds.

Dorothea Lange’s
Migrant Mother

Through grit and resilience, and with the help of a friend, Elsa overcomes miserable circumstances, and after pages of despair, Hannah finally ends the story on a sad but hopeful note. Among Hannah’s inspirations are Dorothea Lange’s portraits of Dust Bowl Women. Lange, best known as a documentary photographer during the 1930s, included reports from the field with her photographs. Some of her quotes from people with whom she had spoken make their way into Hannah’s dialogue. “Somethin’ is radical wrong,” one told her; another said, “I don’t believe the President knows what’s happening to us here.” Lange also included her own observations. “They have built homes here out of nothing,” she wrote, referring to the cardboard and plywood “Okievilles” scattered throughout California’s Central Valley. “They have planted trees and flowers. These flimsy shacks represent many a last stand to maintain self-respect.”

Hannah acknowleges her story’s connection to the current global catastrophe in an Author’s Note at the end of the book:

“My husband’s best friend, Tom, who was one of the earliest of our friends to encourage my writing and who was our son’s godfather, caught the virus last week and has just passed away. We cannot be with his widow, Lori, and his family to mourn.  Three years ago, I began writing this novel about hard times in America: the worst environmental disaster in our history; the collapse of the economy; the effect of massive unemployment. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the Great Depression would become so relevant in our modern lives, that I would see so many people out of work, in need, frightened for the future.

As we know, there are lessons to be learned from history. Hope to be derived from hardships faced by others.  We’ve gone through bad times before and survived, even thrived. History has shown us the strength and durability of the human spirit.”


Folly Beach with Porgy and Bess

Summertime and the livin’ is easy –                             Porgy and Bess

Gershwin collaborated with Dorothy and DuBose Hayward in a South Carolina cottage to write the famous lyrics, and Dorothea Benton Frank uses the place and the history to frame her story at  Folly Beach.

After Cate’s husband hangs himself with the Christmas lights, 
the day of his funeral is anticlimactic  – until the debtors come to repossess the furniture, the mistress appears with pictures of bastard children, and the secretary offers condolences by saying she is glad he is dead so she will not have to file for sexual assault.   Within all this turmoil, Frank has another story she is telling in alternate chapters, and it takes a while to figure out what she is talking about.  The reader is as confused as poor Cate Cooper.

Cate moves from New Jersey to her aunt’s historic house in South Carolina, former home of playwrights Dorothy and DuBose Heyward, authors of the play they adapted for musical theater with Gershwin.  The ghosts of the twenties and thirties emerge as the back story.  Familiar names sprinkle the alternate chapters, written as scenes in a play, with the lead character, Dorothy Hayward, reminiscing about her contemporaries: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claudette Colbert, Fanny Hurst.  The historical references are real and although distracting at first, these chapters prove far more compelling than the main storyline of Cate suddenly finding a new handsome love interest who inspires her to write a play about the historic couple.

Frank paints a convincing backdrop of the sultry South Carolina shore and the cobble-stone streets of Charleston. The lowcountry setting is appealing, and Frank’s historic references motivated me to check her references.  She followed the Hayward lives closely, even including his children’s book that has never been out of print – The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.  

But not enough history in this Southern tale and too much gravy and biscuits – even for a beach read.  At the end of her book, Frank provides a list of references about the famous writing couple – might be better to check those out instead.

Recipe for Biscuits and Gravy