Book Review: The Four Winds

Though Hannah describes life in the Depression with beautiful-but-heart-breaking detail, I was unsatisfied with the ending. This is my least favorite of Kristin Hannah’s books, and I’ve read a lot of them.

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

I looked forward to reading this book so much that I almost bought a copy instead of waiting to borrow it from my grandmother, but it ended up being my least favorite of Kristin Hannah’s books.

Description

Texas, 1921. Too tall and too old to marry, Elsa Wolcott can’t resist Rafe Martinelli’s attention, but when their unsanctioned relationship ruins her reputation, she has only one respectable option: marriage to Rafe, a man she barely knows.

She grows to love the Martinelli’s farm, and gradually earns the respect of her in-laws, but the Great Depression changes everything. With millions out of work, the drought’s constant barrage of dust storms jeopardize both the farm and Elsa’s marriage. Elsa must make an impossible choice: leave the land she loves or head west in search of a better life for her children.

Characters

Elsa begins the story insecure about her appearance and value, and much of the story revolves around her trying to earn love. She proves herself a hard-working woman who perseveres through trials the modern millennial couldn’t comprehend. After facing numerous rejections, she strives to hold on to her daughter’s affection, but Loreda’s teenage years have pushed them farther apart.

Loreda is a typical small-town girl who dreams of more. Like most teenaged girls, she blames her mother for everything from her father’s unhappiness to the drought. When the family’s dire circumstances push her past bitterness into desperation, she finds she and her mother have more in common than she’d thought.

Plot

The plot centers on the family’s struggle to farm during the drought, descent into poverty, and eventual migration to California in search of a better life. Unfortunately, instead of a land flowing with milk and honey, California offers them only poverty and discrimination.

Mostly, I enjoyed the plot. However, I hated the ending. I’ll describe my thoughts on it below, but if you don’t want spoilers, skip to the next section.


SPOILERS


The book’s main storylines are Elsa learning that she is loveable and Loreda learning to value her mother. However, Elsa doesn’t feel valuable until Jack falls in love with her. In a book that intentionally emphasizes the role of women in the Depression, I hate that Elsa needs a man to show her love. A better ending would have been shown her learning to value herself as she fought for her children’s well-being, especially since the conflict revolves around her relationship with her daughter. Finding satisfaction in her daughter’s love would have been much more satisfying than some man’s sexual attraction.

Loreda’s storyline is better completed. After seeing her mother lead the workers’ strike, she finally learns to respect her mother’s strength and realizes she possesses that same fortitude within herself. However, the ending rings hollow. Loreda goes to college, like her mother wanted, but I feel like she would have done that anyway. Her newfound respect for her mother, if not her mother’s lifestyle, didn’t change her behavior. If Hannah had made Loreda more resistant to schooling throughout the book, this transformation would have been more effective.


SPOILERS END


Writing Style

In her typical brilliance, Hannah describes life in the Depression with heart-wrenching detail, almost too much detail. Reading her prose is like experiencing the hardships of the Depression first hand—not pleasant. I could almost taste the dust in my mouth. Reading it during a road trip through the desert probably didn’t help.

Miscellaneous

I never figured out why the novel is titled The Four Winds, other than the dust storms’ prominence. Still, it left me wondering, which four?

Conclusion

Though Hannah describes life in the Depression with beautiful-but-heart-breaking detail, I was unsatisfied with the ending. Such well-rounded characters deserved more thematically consistent endings to their emotional journeys. If you are curious about life during the 1930s, this book will bring those difficult years to life, but don’t count on the ending being worthy of a standing ovation.


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Book Review: Home Front

I read this book eight years after it was published and fifteen years after it was set, but I still feel its themes are relevant today.

Home Front by Kristin Hannah

I read this book eight years after it was published and fifteen years after it was set. For me, the most interesting part was reflecting on how much has changed in American culture since then.

Cover Description

“Like many couples, Michael and Jolene Zarkades have to face the pressures of everyday life—children, careers, bills, chores—even as their twelve-year marriage is falling apart. Then an unexpected deployment sends Jolene deep into harm’s way and leaves defense attorney Michael at home, unaccustomed to being a single parent to their two girls. As a mother, it agonizes Jolene to leave her family, but as a soldier she has always understood the true meaning of duty. In her letters home, she paints a rose-colored version of her life on the front lines, shielding her family from the truth. But war will change Jolene in ways that none of them could have foreseen. When tragedy strikes, Michael must face his darkest fear and fight a batter of his own—for everything that matters to his family.”

Characters

So many books aim for a “strong female lead” by putting breasts on a masculine character, but Jolene has a refreshingly feminine strength. As a mother, her number one priority is her daughters. She takes on a great emotional toll to spare them pain, and she sacrifices her personal preferences to keep the family running. She is strong, yet vulnerable, feeling intense emotions even as she perseveres through her trials. Jolene is three-dimensional, a shining example resilience.

Including Michael’s perspective prevents the reader from picking sides in their marital disputes. He is flawed, and his struggle with being Mr. Mom resonates with anyone who has ever worked with children. My one critique is that by the end of the book, he seemed too perfect. I have serious doubts that a man would be so persistent given Jolene’s repeated refusal of reconciliation.

Would I have said that had I read the book in 2012 when it was published? Has my opinion of people declined so much? I’m not sure. It seems to me the more “connected” we are through technology, the shorter our attention spans, and the less effort we are willing to put into our relationships. Jolene and Michael’s marriage is an example of love as a choice, of the extensive hard work needed to last until death do us part. Call me a cynic, but I don’t see that kind of love very often in times where a minor disagreement will lead to “unfriending.” Reading this book makes be think we could all use a dose of the past.

Plot

The story falls into two parts: Jolene’s deployment and her adjustment to coming home. Interspersed are Michael’s struggles as a functionally single parent. The central conflict is Jolene being deployed to Iraq, and Michael’s lack of support for her. For me, it was interesting to reflect on what dominated the headlines back then compared fills our screens now.

Overall, the plot is well-paced, somewhat predictable, but that isn’t a bad thing in a character-driven novel. I enjoyed watching Jolene and Michael grow as individuals and as a couple.

Writing Style

Hannah’s descriptions are evocative without being too high-brow. She has a talent for showing the passage of time via small things—flowers blooming, weather patterns, characters growing accustomed to their new surroundings. Her prose is clear and easy to read without lacking substance.

Miscellaneous

I read this book long after it was published, but I still found it relevant. The themes of reconciliation, supporting your spouse despite disagreements, love as a choice, and coming home both mentally and physically are as pertinent today as they were in 2012.

The story draws attention to mental health in a relatable way that is both encouraging and discouraging. Encouraging because we have made great strides in PTSD research and management since this book was set. Discouraging because so much stigma still surrounds mental health, even though increased isolation and false-faced social media have led to an even greater need to destroy that stigma.

Conclusion

As usual, you can’t go wrong with a book by Kristin Hannah. With her characteristic clear and beautiful writing style, Hannah explores the intimate landscape of human relationships. The themes of this moving story continue to speak to the heart.



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Anxious People

The last page arrives far too soon. Anxious People is a fine addition to the rest of his collection.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Honestly, you should skip this review and buy the book, but in case you need a little encouragement first, read on.

Cover Description

“Looking at real estate isn’t usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can’t fix up their own marriage. There’s a wealthy banker who has been too busy making money to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can’t seem to agree on anything, from where they want to live to how they met in the first place. Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face, a flustered but still-read-to-make-a-deal real estate agent, and a mystery man who has locked himself in the apartment’s only bathroom, and you’ve got the worst group of hostages in the world.

“Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions that are ready to boil over. None of them is entirely who they appear to be. And all of them—the bank robber included—desperately crave some sort of rescue.”

Characters

As usual, Bachman’s characters are the perfect blend of quirky and deep. With wry humor, he captures humanity in all its messiness. I love that he doesn’t write about single characters, but entire communities. Each person has their own odd behaviors that are only understood when they reveal who they truly are. Each person impacts the person next to them. These characters don’t jump off the page, they tear the pages right from the binding. Peculiar as they are, everyone can say they know someone like them.

Plot

The plot alternates timelines and perspectives to reveal both the police investigation and the hostage’s situation. He weaves various small threads into a complete narrative, with every minor detail having a significant impact and no loose threads left at the end. The mystery of what happened to the bank robber is compelling, but the characters themselves are so entertaining, I would have finished this book even if the plot were a bunch of strangers watching paint dry.

Writing Style

Fredrik Backman is one of my favorite authors. Clichés flee the room when he enters it. His descriptions are unique and on-point. I’m not ashamed to admit that I paused my reading several times just to admire a sentence or phrase. He effortlessly captures the deep hurts people carry, the small ways they show their feelings even when they can’t say, “I love you” out loud. Every quirk has a reason, and even the vainest of characters is more than superficial.

Conclusion

I rarely review Fredrik Backman’s books because he is one of those authors whose books I will read without even scanning the description first. The last page arrives far too soon. His work has an addictive quality that leaves a lasting emotional impression. Anxious People is a fine addition to the rest of his collection.

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Anxious People

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