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Book Scene: 'Four Winds' an epic novel of despair and hope

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four winds

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 1934 Texas for me as I became immersed in the pages of “The Four Winds” and the life of Elsa Wolcott.

Elsa is 25, unmarried, a spinster. She is “on the shelf.” It isn’t just that she survived rheumatic fever as a child — that certainly added another dimension to her life, being overly protected by a “loving family” for fear that she would become ill again. It’s because she isn’t pretty. Being pretty is everything, and she is “too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself.” And so, on the eve of her 25th birthday, she decides she wants to live, not just exist.

Defying her overbearing father and overly protective mother, Elsa puts on the red silk dress she has made, borrows her mother’s makeup, and walks out the door for an evening at a local speak-easy. When she meets Rafe, her life is changed forever; for that one night, in the bed of a pickup beneath a beautiful Texas sky, she finds 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 away 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 she was. She understood love, loyalty and compassion, perhaps because it had been denied her all her life. It was Elsa who 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 is 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. And it’s one of Kristen Hannah’s best novels to date.

• “The Four Winds” by Kristin Hannah was published by St. Martin’s Press on Feb. 2. It retails for $28.99.

• Irene M. Pearcey works for Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in Thursday’s SCENE section every week.

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