The Four Winds


Rating:
⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kristin Hannah
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb. 2021 (read Feb. 2021)

I know Kristin Hannah has over 20 books, but she’s become really popular with her last few publications, and for good reason. My book club read and loved the Nightingale and then I became absolutely obsessed with her last book, The Great Alone. So I was very excited to read another historical novel, this time about the dust-bowl era and mass migration to California.

While I knew about the great depression, I’m a little embarrassed to say I knew very little about the dust-bowl era of the early 1930’s. As a Canadian I won’t be overly shamed about this, but one of my biggest takeaways is that I really should read the Grapes of Wrath, which sounds like it is more or less the same plot as The Four Winds. I don’t mean that as a slight, it just seems like most people cover this period of history in their learnings by reading John Steinbeck’s classic, so I’m definitely anxious to read that book as well now.

The Four Winds opens in Texas prior to the great depression. Our heroine Elsa has been cast out by her wealthy family and marries into an Italian farming family. Though she struggles to satisfy her husband, she finds great happiness on the farm and takes joy in a hard day’s work and in raising her two children, Loreda and Ant. However, when drought strikes Texas the family falls on tough times and Elsa must make the decision whether to head west with her family in search of work and better days.

The Dust-bowl era coincides with the Great Depression and is a period of history in which many southern states experienced severe drought and dust storms. Agriculture crashed and many developed dust pneumonia as a result of the storms. This resulted in mass migration to California where migrants faced even more hardship – cast out and vilified by the locals, aid was denied to many and the only work to be found was hard labour at a pitiful wage.

It is this hardship that Elsa and her children experience. I found the plot really interesting in that I knew very little about the dust-bowl era and didn’t realize there had been a mass migration in America in the 1930’s. What’s most striking is the way that history has a tendency to repeat itself and that no matter the individual, America does a great job at othering “outsiders” and vilifying the poor.

Before southerners migrated to California, Mexicans would cross the border to work in the cotton and fruit farms as pickers, earning minimal wages, then leaving at the end of each season to return to their families. Eventually the government cracked down on this immigration and suddenly the California growers found themselves with no cheap labour to pick their goods. Until farmers from the south started flooding across the border looking for any work to feed their families. The growers took advantage of this labour and the sheer number of people allowed them to pay even lower wages, maximizing their profit because there was always someone desperate enough to pick for any wage.

This echo’s the world we still live in. Capitalism is built on cheap labour and immigrants are often still forced to work for any wage to survive. I find it hard to understand how the American Dream is even still a thing because class difference in America is so divided and there are so many people living in poverty. People with privilege rise up on what they pretend are their own merits, while a multitude of people struggle to survive every single day – many of whom are taken advantage of by their employers. The only real difference in The Four Winds is that the workers are white American born citizens. While they are absolutely justified in wanting to be treated humanely and earn a living wage, I couldn’t help but notice their indignation at being treated, for lack of another word, like immigrants. They feel that as American citizens, Californians should empathize with their plight – but it just goes to show how ingrained feelings of nationalism and state pride go and how threatened people will always feel by “others”. Heaven forbid an “outsider” receive state aid or take advantage of state services paid for by “their” tax money.

In some ways though, the migrants were just as proud as many of the Californians in that they felt they should be able to provide for themselves and should not need to take relief or government assistance. They honestly just wanted to be paid a living wage so that they wouldn’t need the relief. I’m sure many would be happy to pay taxes and contribute to services, but their poverty and the lack of work made this impossible. It’s just scary that this is a mindset that still exists today. That somehow poor people aren’t worthy of basic access to services like welfare and healthcare. That giving someone a helping hand will make them reliant on support. No one wants to be on welfare. And the fact that we still have to debate, in a pandemic, that people deserve a living wage and that the government should step up and provide financial relief, is frankly embarrassing.

I’m sure it didn’t come as a surprise to those who are more well informed than me, but what I found most shocking about this book was the Welty Farm. The sheer brilliance and evil of allowing people to run themselves into debt on your farm, all to secure their labour throughout picking season. In some ways the families that found themselves with a cabin on Welty Farms were very lucky. It put an actual roof over their heads and allowed them some modicum of comfort over living in the shanties. But the model of forcing poor migrants to buy everything on credit from the company store at triple the price and never paying them in cash is really so evil. And not allowing them to seek work elsewhere in the off season to ensure that every cent they earn during cotton picking will go into paying off their debt, ensuring they’ll have to stay around another year and survive again on credit, is just plain evil. It’s hard to believe someone can look in the face of such poverty and deny someone a living wage. But this is the world we live in – where people like Jeff Bezos make billions in a pandemic yet refuse to pay their workers a living wage. Really, what has changed since 1930?

But I should probably spend less time ranting and actually talk about the book. You’re probably wondering why I gave this 3 stars when it sounds like I was really into it. As a history book, I did really like this. Hannah showcases every aspect of this era and I liked that we got to experience how awful the dust storms were, what it was like to migrate across the country, and how in many ways, California was worse than what they experienced in Texas. So I did really like the history covered in this book and felt it was fairly comprehensive. But as far as this goes as a novel, I did think it was a little lacking.

Hannah is definitely a good writer. I fell in love with her writing in The Great Alone and the way she wrote about Alaska and her characters. I felt they all had such heart despite the hardships they faced. I love that Hannah focuses on the mother-daughter relationship in her novels and it’s what compels me to pick up each of her books. But unlike The Great Alone, in The Four Winds the land and everything around it is dying. While Elsa is undeniably a strong and inspiring character, I couldn’t help but feel this book was lacking in heart.

First of all, I thought it was too long. A lot happens in this book, but we just got a bit too much of everything. I felt like we were suffering the same thing over and over again. I know this is the reality of this kind of a life, but oh my goodness, in the beginning the dust storms seem to go on and on! I don’t think the novel was exaggerated, but we easily could have dropped a hundred pages. I repeatedly got bored throughout this book and at times felt it hard to pick it up again because it was just more and more of the same.

But like I said, as much as I liked Elsa, I just didn’t connect with her in the same way that I have with some of Hannah’s other characters. I’ll admit Hannah is somewhat emotionally manipulative in all her books, including The Great Alone, as much as I love it. She creates these grand heartbreaking situations near the end of her books, but in this one, I felt like Hannah was smashing my face into the sidewalk trying to force me to feel something I didn’t. I loved the inclusion of the wage campaigners and “communists” and seeing the migrants stand up and fight for their rights, but I struggled to buy into the romance (didn’t see the draw of the characters or any chemistry between them). I didn’t see why Elsa’s story was any more inspiring than any other migrant. The climax just felt really forced to me and it took away from the story in my opinion.

From there I thought it just went downhill altogether. I don’t want to post any spoilers, but I didn’t like how easy everything became after the climax. This is a family that has struggled and will continue to struggle. Unfortunately there is never an easy way out of these kinds of struggles. Migrants will continue to be taken advantage of. When the drought ends, yes many will likely return to where they came from, but the sad reality is that this will not be an option for many of the migrants. One, because they will literally not gave the money to return, and second, because many of them have nothing to return to. The farms they abandoned were taken over by the bank, it’s not as simple as returning to your land because the rains have returned, in many cases families will have no land to return to. It’s a really sad way to end a book, but unfortunately sometimes the bad guys win.

I’ll have to do some research about what did happen at the end of the great depression and how people were able to raise themselves back up, but I didn’t like that it wasn’t covered in this book. I assume at some point things did improve, likely some of the migrants left, enabling those that stayed behind to demand better pay. Or that job access improved with the end of the depression, but we don’t really see any of that in this book. It’s just misery straight to the end. I read some reviews that complained that the book has very few high points and too much suffering. I see the point, but I actually disagree – a lot of times the there is truth in so much suffering, but I do still want there to be a purpose for me reading the book. Yes, I learned a lot about a historical period I knew little of, but otherwise I’m not sure what my takeaways were. Yes, I know that Elsa was good and strong and that she learned to be proud of herself, but what of her relationship with Loreda? In most cases their relationship felt forced to me and I felt it was resolved with “telling” rather than “showing”. I guess overall I felt the writing too manipulative towards the end and I struggled to enjoy it.

Anyways, this turned into a pretty lengthy review. The book definitely has its strong points, but other areas that could use some work. Don’t get me wrong, I did still like it, but not Hannah’s strongest work in my opinion. That said, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this book since I finished and I am anxious to go out and read more material about this era, so I do thank Hannah for the intro. Still recommend her books and I know a lot of readers liked this more than I did, so don’t be deterred by my review!

The Mermaid from Jeju


Rating:
⭐⭐⭐
Author: Sumi Hahn
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Dec. 2020 (read Feb. 2021)

I don’t know how I stumbled across this book, I haven’t really seen any hype about it, but as soon as I saw the title and cover I immediately went and bought myself a copy. I read Lisa See’s latest book when it came out, The Island of Sea Women, and became totally enthralled in the history of Jeju Island. It’s an island off the south coast of South Korea that has a very turbulent and interesting history.

My knowledge of island culture is still very limited after reading both books, but it seems that inhabitants of the island have very much carved out their own unique culture and customs, connected, but still separate from the rest of South Korea. In a way it reminds me of Newfoundland in that it is part of Canada, but still maintains a very distinct sense of self.

A large part of Jeju is centered around a matriarchal society, with the Haenyeo (female divers) being seen as the primary family providers and earners. The Island of Sea Women was centered entirely on the Haenyeo, so when reading that book, I did see the Haenyeo as central to Jeju culture. However upon reading The Mermaid from Jeju, I learned that Mount Hallasan also plays a large role in Jeju culture. It’s a huge mountain that supports a whole different ecosystem and plays a large role in island religion.

I’m going to leave it there because I don’t have enough knowledge to expand further, but The Mermaid from Jeju also features a Haenyeo as the main character, so I was immediately drawn to it. Between the two books, I definitely preferred Lisa See’s book, but I did like that Sumi Hahn gives a more well rounded perspective of life all over the island. Both books cover a similar time period and highlight the impact on the people of Jeju from the transition between rule by the Japanese and then the Americans. The situation further deteriorates with the introduction of communism and America’s attempts to remove the threat.

The Mermaid from Jeju is about a young Haenyeo, Junja, and how she and her family are impacted by the arrival of the Americans. Junja has her entire life before her. She is a proud Haenyeo, diving with both her mother and grandmother, and meets a boy on the mountain, Suwol, with whom she becomes fast friends. But as violence spreads across the island, her family is torn apart and she must make difficult decisions.

While I did enjoy this book, I really struggled with the plot. I don’t need to have a well defined plot to enjoy a book – often some of the best books have meandering plots, but I felt like in this book I struggled with not having enough information. There’s a lot going on with Suwol and Junja’s grandmother and I found it really difficult to follow what was going on. I had some background from reading Lisa See’s book, but I think some readers may struggle with keeping track of the history of what is actually happening here. The plot jumps around a lot with little context.

Then in the second half of the book the structure makes a big shift. I understand why the author did this and I eventually did get into this new story, but I found the shift very jarring and it really disrupted the flow of the storytelling for me. It’s difficult to be at a high point in a book and then to have to very quickly shift gears to a low stakes storyline, before returning again to the original story. It just really didn’t work for me, nor did the ambiguous storytelling with the reader not being entirely sure who the new narrator is.

What I did find really interesting was the theme of ghosts. It features more heavily in the second half of the novel and I didn’t give it too much thought until I read the author’s note. The author is Korean, but grew up in America. I don’t think her family is from Jeju, but apparently she has been haunted by ghosts herself and it was these experiences that inspired the story. She visited Jeju and conducted several years of research before publishing this book.

So overall I was intrigued with the story, but it was also evident to me that this was a debut novel. I think the author had a lot of ideas, and good ones, but the story was lacking in focus and execution. I just felt the whole thing needed a little more direction, like the author had too many ideas and just didn’t know how to pull them all together, or cut ideas where they didn’t fit. I needed a bit more context than was provided and the first and second parts of the book just read like different novels. The time I spent investing in the characters and plot of the first half just ended up feeling wasted.

That said, I won’t be deterred from reading more from this author in the future, but I’d recommend picking up The Island Sea Women first over this one.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Carol Rifka Brunt
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: June 2012 (read Dec. 2020)

This book has been on my TBR for a long time and I’m so proud of myself for finally picking it up and making the time to read it! I’ve been reading less in the pandemic, so my book buying habit has gone down and I’ve been finding myself looking through my shelves and trying to knock off some of the books that have been sitting on my TBR for a while.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home reminded me a lot of Rebecca Makkai’s, The Great Believers, but for teenagers instead of adults. They’re the only two books I can recall reading that are set during the aids crisis of the 1980’s and amazingly art features heavily in both books! Is there some connection I’m unaware of between the crisis and great works of art? Because I found it intriguing that both stories were so heavily focused on art and paintings. Maybe just a weird coincidence, but intriguing nonetheless.

Anyways, the similarities between the two novels pretty much ends there. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a coming-of-age story about 14 year old June Elbus and the relationships she has with both her Uncle and her sister. Her Uncle Finn is a world renown painter who has given up on sharing his artwork with the world, but he and June (and her mother) are still both enamoured by all works of art and as her Godfather, they develop a close relationship. June spends many of her weekends with Finn, but when he passes away from aids, she is heartbroken.

After his death, Finn leaves behind all his earthly possessions to his boyfriend, Toby, who is shunned by the family and blamed for Finn’s death, save for a single painting he did of June and her sister Greta, which he of course, wills to the girls. The girls have mixed feelings about the painting, which neither is sure quite captures their likeness. As June struggles with her grief, both Greta and Toby try to strike up a friendship with her – but June can’t make sense of sister, who seems to both love and hate her – and she is confused by Toby, who changes the way she remembers Finn and their relationship.

It’s a slow build story, but I absolutely loved the development between June and each of the other characters. I had no idea there would be such a strong sister element to this story and I was completely intrigued with June and Greta. Greta never had the same relationship with Finn as June, but she is struggling with her own feelings. She is on the verge of an adulthood she feels unprepared for and as a result, acts out like a child. She’s always been the star child, but this only leaves her feeling misunderstood and she is hurt by June’s close relationship with Finn. You can tell these two sisters want to be there for each other, but there’s such a chasm to overcome between their hurts.

I expected June’s relationship with Toby to be the focus of the story, but its really just one piece of the puzzle. We’re these two ever meant to be friends? I’m not sure they were, but they find each other in a time that they both need one another and it was nice that they were able to help heal one another.

Also unexpected was June’s relationship with her mom. I wish this one had been developed a little more, but it was still really intriguing the history behind her mom and her uncle and how her mother’s selfish choices had a lasting impact on the people she loved most. It was a good reminder of the constraints of the time period, but also a reminder that our jealousy and selfishness can get the better of us.

Finally, I loved the side story between Greta and June (and to an extent their mom) and the painting. Every time anyone went down to the bank I’d get so stressed out, but really this was about 3 different women all trying to be seen and understood for who they were. It’s about 2 sisters who miss the ease of their childhood friendship and have forgotten how to grow and support one another. It’s about family and grief and loss and moving on. It’s a slow burn, but I will always understand the girls yearning for sisterhood. 

Betty

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Tiffany McDaniel
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug 2020 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)

I’ve been dying to read Betty ever since I laid eyes on the beautiful cover art and read that it was a fictional recount of her mother’s experience growing up in a large family with a white mother and Cherokee father. It’s a long book and I decided to listen to the audiobook.

I was expecting a sad story and I read there were some hard to read scenes in the book, but I wasn’t expecting just how difficult a read this would be – by which I mean difficult content, not the writing. Betty is a coming of age story about the family’s third youngest child, Betty, the author’s mother, but it really focuses on the family as a whole and I loved that the author cast such a wide scope in her story telling.

The book starts with how Betty’s parents met and then tells the story of their 8 children. It seems like a big cast at first with so many siblings, but we spend a lot of time with this family and we grow to know each of the characters deeply.

This was a hard book to read because Betty’s family experiences hardship after hardship. They lose 2 of their children at early ages (I can’t remember now when exactly either passed away, but they’re not featured in the story beyond mention), and the rest of the children suffer varying levels of trauma. Even their parents have faced a great deal of trauma and the book really showcases the cycle of violence and suffering. 

I read a few interviews with the author after finishing the book and while this is her second book, apparently she’s been trying to publish it for years and struggled to find a publishing house that would work with the manuscript she had. She was told that the story contained too much suffering, that it wasn’t believable that one person or family would suffer so much, and worse of all, that people wouldn’t relate to Betty as a young girl. That will give you an idea of the kind of story that you’re in for, but I’m glad the author opted not to change her story because while it was upsetting to read, I had no trouble believing it. 

Indigenous Peoples have been wronged by both Americans and Canadians and our governments for centuries. Betty’s dad, Landon, was Cherokee and tries his best to honour his heritage and impart his ancestral wisdom on to his children. But he has also been mistreated and wronged as a Cherokee man and we catch glimpses of this throughout the story. While most of the children take after their mother (read: white) in appearance, Betty takes most after her father, and as a result, she is the most bullied of the children outside of the home. But in her home, she is also her father’s favourite and puts the most stock and importance into his traditional wisdom.

The hardest scene for me to read in the book was when Betty’s mother describes to her the abuse she experienced at the hands of her parents. It’s a traumatizing story on it’s own, but the way her mother chooses to share it is it’s own kind of horror and deeply emblematic of the way abuse cycles down through generations. This book has everything from violence, rape, incest, animal abuse, death, self harm, and suicide. But it also has some really beautiful scenes as well.

Landon Carpenter was for sure the highlight of the story for me. It’s hard to say whether Betty’s parents were really good parents or not – they certainly had their faults and a very laid back approach to parenting, but Landon’s love for his children was so evident throughout the course of the novel that I was able to forgive some of his other misgivings. He tried to be a good dad – to provide for his children and pass on traditional knowledge. I found a lot of faults with Betty’s mom and siblings, but I think Landon really did try his best. When I read the trigger warnings about this book, I was bracing myself for a horrible father figure, so it was really nice to find a caring and empathic one instead.

This isn’t a book I think I could ever pick up again, but I’m really glad I read it and I think it is a story that will stick with me for a long time. I’m so glad the author was able to finally share it.

The Pull of the Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Emma Donaghue
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: July 2020 (read Oct. 2020 on Audible)

With everything that’s going on right now, I was super intrigued by the plot of The Pull of the Stars. It’s set in 1918 Ireland during the last global pandemic. The entire book revolves around 30 year old nurse Julia, who works in the maternity ward of the Dublin hospital. However during the pandemic, she is assigned to the pandemic part of the maternity ward, which is where all the women with flu symptoms have been sent.

The Pull of the Stars wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was definitely compelling. Emma Donaghue made the somewhat interesting choice to set almost the entire novel within the hospital over a span of only 2-3 days. Throughout that time, we see the strain that Julia is under as a nurse and the limited resources of the hospital due to the pandemic. Donaghue focuses both on the challenges the flu has on the mothers and their labours (in many cases it caused the women to go into pre-mature labour, which obviously complicated the births), as well as the challenges women in general faced during the time period.

At 30, Julia is unmarried and considered a bit of a maid. Besides nursing, she mostly takes care of her brother, who came back from the war severely traumatized. The hospital is extremely understaffed, so they bring in a young volunteer named Bridie to help in the ward. Bridie was raised in the convent by nuns and her situation shines a light on the catholic church and the unfair advantage they took of girls and women without families or who found themselves in bad situations. Bridie was abused by the nuns and then forced to continue working for them to pay off her indenture for the care she received as a girl (even though the nuns are paid by the state). Donaghue explores this theme of abuse of power by the church throughout the novel and I found it really eye-opening and enraging.

Finally, the novel also has a small focus on female doctor, Kathleen Lynn, a former rebel who’s supposedly on the run from police. I liked how Donaghue explored what it meant to be a female doctor at the time, how she was perceived by men, and how her approach to medicine and labour differed from that of the male doctors. She definitely saw more of the humanity of the new mothers when they experienced complications in labour and generally was less judgmental of those who had fallen pregnant outside of wedlock.

So overall I thought it was a really interesting book. The themes were subtle and a lot of time did focus on the new mothers and their complicated births, so I liked how the author explores the other links between church and state, especially since it’s so relevant with the story being set in 1918 Ireland. The only thing I didn’t like is that there’s a hasty romance thrown into the story near the end that felt very much out of place. I get what Donaghue was trying to do and I appreciate her for trying to explore some other themes, but it just didn’t work for me. It was too short lived and I don’t think it really added much to the story overall. 

Otherwise, this was a good book that wasn’t too long or overwritten. I listened to it on audiobook and thought the narrator did a good job.