Review by Irene Pearcey
I read this book while on a visit to Texas, perhaps that is why it so resonated with me...it was hot and dry. I could look around the landscape, feel the hot wind, touch the gritty dust that clung to everyone and everything. It was Texas 1934 for me as I became immersed in the pages of The Four Winds and the life of Elsa Wolcott.
Elsa was 25, unmarried, a spinster. She was "on the shelf". It wasn't just that she had survived Rheumatic fever as a child, that certainly added another dimension to her life...overly protected by a "loving family" for fear that she would become ill again...it was because she wasn't pretty...being pretty was everything and she wasn't. She was "too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself" and so on the eve of her 25th birthday she decides that she wants to live and not just exist. Defying her overbearing father, her overly protective mother, she puts on the red silk dress she has made, borrows her mother's make-up, and walks out the door for an evening at a local speak-easy. When she meets Rafe her life is changed forever, but for that one night in the bed of a pickup beneath a beautiful Texas sky she found acceptance and love. And now she is also a "tainted" woman.
Marrying Rafe and moving in with his family compounds the guilt and shame Elsa has known all her life. She cares not if they love her, she wants only to know that the child she carries will be loved. Rafe is a dreamer and as the years pass his lost dreams slowly eat away at him and his love for Elsa. In the midst of a changing landscape, rains that do not come, crops that wither and die in the Texas heat, Rafe slips aways in the dark of the night leaving his wife, his children, and his parents to face what will be known as the "Dust Bowl" on their own.
Elsa had always been strong, she just didn't know that she was. She understood love, loyalty, and compassion, perhaps because it had been denied her all her life. It was Elsa that kept the family from starvation during those early years of the Dust Bowl, it was Elsa who packed up her small family and joined the Dust Bowl migration to California in search of a better life, but the reality of it was that California was filled with hatred and prejudice for an economic inequality that was no more her fault than were the rains that failed to come.
The Four Winds is a gut-wrenching journey through the Dust Bowl and the life of Elsa Wolcott. It is beautiful and sad, filled with despair and hope. One of Kristen Hannah's best novels to date.