The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah is a historical novel about the Dust Bowl and subsequent westward migration by drought-stricken farmers. It was published in 2021. Hannah is the author of more than 20 novels, including the bestsellers Winter Garden, Night Road, and Firefly Lane. Her 2015 novel The Nightingale was voted a best book of the year by The Wall Street Journal, Library Journal, Buzzfeed, and The Week. The Four Winds centers on one family caught up in the epic sweep of history, and, in the process, it addresses themes of hardship, discrimination, economic inequality, and the American dream.
The Four Winds tells the story of Elsa Wolcott, a young woman born and raised in Texas during the boom years of the 1920s. Elsa is 25, and her parents, wealthy members of the local social scene, consider her too old and too plain for marriage, relegating her to the status of spinster. When Elsa is swept off her feet by Rafe Martinelli, an 18-year-old son of a local farmer, their romantic affair leaves Elsa pregnant. Disowned by her parents for casting shame upon the family, Elsa marries Rafe and is taken in by Tony and Rose Martinelli, Rafe’s parents. When Elsa gives birth to Loreda, Tony and Rose love their grandchild immediately and eventually accept Elsa as the daughter they never had.
Elsa finds that the hard work of farming agrees with her, but Rafe’s dreams lie elsewhere. He fantasizes about traveling and adventure, filling Loreda’s head with similar fantasies. By 1933, Texas is in the throes of a severe drought. The Martinellis’ farm, which previously yielded plentiful supplies of wheat, dies under the scorching sun. Massive dust storms pummel the region, covering everything in layers of grit and dust and causing an epidemic of lung disease. Unhappy with farm life and his marriage, Rafe runs off in the middle of the night, leaving a distraught family behind.
As the drought worsens and the dust storms become more severe, Anthony, Elsa and Rafe’s son, becomes sick, eventually requiring hospitalization. The doctor advises Elsa to get out of Texas. At last, the choice she has struggled with for months—to stay on the farm or try her luck in California—has been made for her. They pack up the truck and head west, while Tony and Rose stay behind to salvage what they can of the farm. After a grueling journey across the Mohave Desert, Elsa finally reaches the lush fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley, and she is hopeful for the first time in months. That hope is quickly dashed when they encounter discrimination, a lack of jobs, and the reality of life in a muddy squatters’ camp.
Despite Elsa’s promise that their stay in the camp is only temporary, the scarcity of work and the meager wages force them to settle in for the long haul. There, Elsa discovers a tight community of fellow migrants, and she befriends Jean Dewey, who shares resources and survival tips. Eventually, Elsa finds work picking cotton, and between the work and government relief money, she is able to eke out an existence. Meanwhile, Loreda, now 13, grows dissatisfied with their life and her mother’s inability to move them out of the camp. When Jean’s baby dies in childbirth, Loreda’s anger at the inequity of their situation boils over, and she runs away.
She is eventually picked up by Jack Valen, a union organizer who takes Loreda to a union meeting. She is enthralled by Jack’s charisma and the devotion of his fellow organizers to the cause of fair pay. She wants to join, despite her mother’s prohibition, and sneaks out at night to attend meetings. When the squatters’ camp is destroyed by flooding, Jack and his colleagues are the only help the migrants receive. He brings Elsa and the children to an abandoned hotel where he provides them rooms for the night. Elsa is likewise drawn to Jack’s forceful personality, but she sees his ideas as dangerous.
Jack eventually finds Elsa and her family a permanent residence on Welty Farms, but Elsa soon discovers that it’s not the boon she expected. Welty’s company store overcharges for food and supplies and keeps its workers forever in debt. It becomes apparent that there is no way to ever crawl out from under the debt burden, especially when Welty systematically cuts wages. When Jean falls ill with typhoid and eventually dies for lack of medical care, Elsa’s anger at their inequitable treatment reaches a tipping point. She is ready to strike.
The first day of the strike is successful despite Welty’s threats of a further pay cut, but the next day, the strikers are met with law enforcement and hired vigilantes. The police lob tear gas, and Welty’s thugs beat Jack senseless. Elsa, fearing the violence will break the strikers’ spirits, picks up Jack’s megaphone and exhorts the workers to stay united. An armed guard fires through the teargas and hits Elsa in the abdomen. Jack takes her to the hospital, but the damage is too severe. Elsa dies, surrounded by Jack, Loreda, and Anthony. The strike is broken, at least temporarily.
Embittered by their terrible luck in California, Loreda resolves to take her mother’s body back to Texas and bury her on the farm, in the land she grew to love. Jack drives them to Texas, and Elsa is buried in the family cemetery. Years later, when Loreda is 18, she bids a final farewell to Elsa and the farm as she heads back to California to attend college, the fulfillment of her mother’s most important wish.