St. Martin’s, 464 pages, $28.99
Labor is certainly hot these days.
Last fall, Jess Walter published The Cold Millions, a terrific story about union organizers in Spokane, Washington, in the early 20th century. The Washington Post named it one of the top 10 books of 2020.
And now comes mega-seller Kristin Hannah with The Four Winds, an emotional novel about efforts to organize migrant workers in California during the Depression.
Admittedly, literary fiction is not the surest bellwether of American cultural attitudes. But with income inequality soaring even as union membership plummets, Walter and Hannah are leading readers back to an era when desperate workers linked arms to fight for their income, their honor, and their very lives.
The Four Winds begins in northwestern Texas in 1921. Elsa Wolcott is the eldest daughter in a middle-class family that treats her like an ugly heirloom. Her unloving parents keep Elsa cloistered in her room reading, insisting she’s too weak to endure any social interaction. At 25 — a hopeless spinster! — she’s constantly reminded that “no man of note wants an unattractive wife.”
But Elsa is about one strip of yellow wallpaper away from a nervous breakdown. Her heart is a thumping muscle of unsatisfied longings and unrealized ambitions. Like Jane Eyre, she fumes with the exasperation of a passionate woman long dismissed and repressed. “If she didn’t do something soon, something drastic, her future would look no different from her present,” Hannah writes. “She would stay in this house for all her life” with novels as her only friends.
Inspired by the scandalous story of Fanny Hill, Elsa sews a red dress that shows her knees and storms off for a night of romantic adventure. She gets what she wants — for a few seconds, at least — but it turns out that novels have provided her with a very limited understanding of how sex actually works.
This great storm of sighs and shame is mere introduction designed to transform Elsa from Imprisoned Virgin to Outcast Mother. Expelled from the confines of her bedroom and the enervating control of her parents, she emerges as a classic Hannah heroine girded for the harrowing adventures ahead.
When The Four Winds picks up again in 1934, we’re deep in the Great Depression, and Hannah lets her story bake under the cloudless sky. A conspiracy of bad weather, bad agriculture, and bad government gradually desiccates the entire area, bringing one farm after another to ruin.
The evaporation of water, the withering of seedlings, the boredom of unemployment — such calamities are not easy to dramatize, but as the drought grinds on, Hannah makes the heat radiate off these pages. And for sheer physical terror, she swirls up apocalyptic dust storms, ordeals of gritty insistence that last for days, transforming the landscape, burying homes, and filling lungs. Faced with the possibility of starvation, Elsa must decide whether to stay on her land or head off to California, that oasis of milk and honey with jobs aplenty.
Clearly, while Elsa was reading Sense and Sensibility, Hannah was reading The Grapes of Wrath. Elsa keeps reminding people that she’s a Texan, not an Okie, but the echoes of Steinbeck’s classic are sometimes so strong that I expected to see the Joads’ Hudson Super Six chugging along the road. Like Tom and his family, Elsa discovers that the paradise she expected to find is no such thing. California is overwhelmed by impoverished people desperate for work and food. With no safety standards, labor regulations, or minimum wage — all those pesky burdens that Republicans are still whining about — giant farm owners are free to treat their laborers as brutally as they want. The country is entranced by the pernicious lie that providing government aid would weaken workers’ initiative.
Of course, when The Grapes of Wrath appeared in 1939, much of America was crippled by the poverty that Steinbeck had reported on for the San Francisco News. A few months later, when Congress began hearings on wages and farm regulations, his novel felt devastatingly current.
Hannah’s negotiation with this 80-year-old material — during a global pandemic that’s weighing on our economy — is necessarily more complicated. She’s examining a traumatic era in American history while also using it to reflect on the current scourges of xenophobia and economic exploitation tearing through the United States.
Then as now, demagogues scream about the dangers of socialism while ignoring the damages of crushed lives and spirits. In lines that sound tragically contemporary, Hannah describes 1930s citizens crouching in fear and resentment, conflating poverty with immorality. “The schools and hospitals were overrun, they said, unable to survive the demands of so many outsiders. They worried about bankruptcy and losing their way of life and being made unsafe by the wave of crime and disease they blamed on migrants.”
Like Steinbeck, Hannah attends to the economic and political forces killing these workers. “This is America,” a young woman tells Elsa. “How can this be happening to us?” Migrant children are effectively excluded from public schools. Hospitals refuse to treat laborers. Any talk of resistance or organizing is beaten into silence by bat-wielding police. And Hannah offers a particularly powerful illustration of the way the company store traps farmworkers in a cycle of consumption and debt — an almost-quaint version of the insidious credit industry that enslaves millions of Americans today.
But if Hannah demonstrates a socialist’s faith in the need for stronger controls over the powers of capital, she still makes a bad Marxist. After all, her primary interest in The Four Winds remains Elsa’s potential for independence. Yes, the fight to unionize the farmworkers eventually provides the story’s climactic action — and its frosted-lens romance — but the real focus is always Elsa’s struggle to be brave, to understand that “courage is fear you ignore.” This is, almost from the first page, a story about Elsa’s efforts to cast off the crippling limits imposed by her parents and be the person she wants to be.
In fact, despite the strong echoes to The Grapes of Wrath, Hannah may be working closer to 19th- century melodrama. The heroines of The Four Winds are purely heroic, its villains wholly evil. Hannah never risks ambiguity; her pages are 100 percent irony-free. And she moves with a relentless pace. Her prose, so ordinary line by line, nevertheless accumulates into scenes that rush from one emergency to the next — starving! beating! flooding! — pausing only for respites of sentimentality. (There’s a little boy in these pages so sweet he could be ground up to flavor 8 million cupcakes.)
Despite Hannah’s extraordinary commercial success, the snob in me wonders what this indefatigable author could produce if she endured a little tougher editorial criticism and gave herself a little more time. (She’s published 24 novels in 30 years.) But that would mean fiddling with the well-oiled machine that reliably produces such marketable passion.