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‘The Four Winds’: Kristin Hannah’s Novel of Love And Loss During The Dust Bowl Days

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Kristin Hannah
Kevin Lynch

Kristin Hannah’s latest novel, The Four Winds, is set during the Great Depression when drought, famine, and the devastation of the Dust Bowl converged at once for the folks living in the Great Plains.

Elsa Wolcott had been a townie and had already assimilated to farm life as a consequence of being disowned by her family when she took up with Rafe Martinelli and became pregnant. As a mother with a penchant for farm life she makes a go of things out of sheer force of will.

But how can she survive so many catastrophes befalling her at once? After a time, she also contends with a failing marriage. Can she possibly head west with her two children and survive on her own? It might be the only way she can ensure her children will survive so many hardships.

Highlights of the interview with Kristin Hannah

On the protagonist, Elsa

Well, you know, one thing that I wanted to sort of explore with Elsa was this idea of how much of our identity and our opinion of ourselves is formed when we are young, based on how our family feels about us and the things that our families say about us.

And so Elsa has grown up kind of an odd duck in a wealthy, important family in a very small Texas town. And she's been told most of her life that she's just not good enough for various and sundry reasons. The start of the novel is her basically making a decision to break out of the life that has been prescribed for her. And she does this based on a reading of The Age of Innocence, because she's a bit of a bookworm. And so she reaches for a different life and a great deal of the novel is her struggling to break free of those initial beliefs about herself and her coming into a different kind of selfhood.

On the protagonist’s love of books

You know that's actually something you'll find in my work, sort of off and on throughout the years. And I think it's because, as a child who moved around a lot, I had a family where home was the family more than it was the place that we lived. And so I was often the new girl in school and it was really my beloved books that were the friends that stayed with me all the time and that kept me going. And so it's a very easy leap for me to see that in my characters.

On the mother-daughter story in the novel

I have been an adolescent daughter and I know what a fraught time that is in the best of times, a girl of that age at 12, 13, 14 trying to find her place in the world and trying to become the next best version of herself. And in this particular novel, her father has been sort of filling her head for years with big ideas and big dreams. And the idea that they would someday have a big adventurous life rather than the grinding sort of day-to-day survival that it is on their farm. And the two of them are just at odds the way that mothers and adolescent girls obviously are…. Elsa has always had an issue with self-esteem.

And so Loreda has absolute certainty that she's right about everything and that her mother is wrong about everything. [It] really kind of strikes at the heart of Elsa and makes her a little off balance around her daughter. And as you point out, this really is very much a novel about motherhood. It's about Elsa and Loreda’s relationship and how that grows over time and how Loreda comes to realize and appreciate her mother’s strength.

And, and I think there's a very lovely, mother-daughter love story between Rose and Elsa where Rosa has perhaps been disappointed in her life, and Elsa really becomes the daughter that she always wanted to have.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.