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.

His & Hers

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Alice Feeney
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. Date: Jul. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)

Alice Feeney’s debut, Sometimes I Lie, was a big hit with my book club when it came out. So I was excited to read His & Hers as our book club pick for February. I don’t think it’s as strong as Sometimes I Lie, but it is a quick, edge-of-your-seat thriller that I devoured in just a few hours.

I don’t want to get too much into the synopsis because it’s always better to go into these kind of books blind, but as the name suggests, the narrative bounces between two central characters, divorced couple Jack and Anna. Jack is a detective and Anna a news reporter. When a woman is murdered in the small English village of Blackdown, both Jack and Anna find themselves covering the story, but they are both also secretly connected to the victim.

Like I said, this is a quick paced thriller that takes you on a winding path. If you’re looking for a quick read that you don’t have to think about too much, this is it. The writing is good in that we really have no idea where the story is going. The author constantly toys with your train of thought, giving you some answer throughout, but always more questions. Overall it was a fun read, but there were a few things I didn’t like about it.

Before I get into the spoiler part of my review, I’ll just say that I thought the story had quite a few plotholes and while the author does always keep you guessing, I didn’t love the writing style. I found the writing a bit disjointed and confusing at times. I think that it was intentional not to give too much away, but I often felt like I just had no information. It’s hard to describe, but I felt like the fun of guessing who did it was removed from the story because the order of information was intentionally confusing I didn’t even bother.

I also found the content disturbing – I know murder mysteries are bound to be a bit disturbing, so it’s not a critique, just a note that it made me uncomfortable and that some people might like a trigger warning for rape. I also hate the use of children as a plot device in murder mysteries. Lots of mysteries center around children and trauma and that is fine, in a way this book does, but the author also leaves several children orphaned and generally I just thought it unnecessary. I felt more like they were used to make the reader feel bad rather than for any important plot reason.

Finally, this is a criticism of the title of the book more than anything. But “His & Hers” implies to me an exploration of two different sides of the same story. Yes this story had two protagonists, but to me it was really no different than any other dually narrated story. I didn’t think the book really explored his and her perspectives of an event. It really was just a simple shared narrative. A minor criticism as it doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the story, but hey, I’m a reader, I care about word choice.

Anyways, those are my critiques. Overall it was a standard 3 star mystery thriller. I liked it, but didn’t love it.

Okay now for the spoiler part of my review. I found quite a few plot holes and I want to document it while it’s still fresh in my mind because it’s bound to come up at my book club discussion!

.

.

.

Plot holes:
– Why did Anna go into Zoe’s house on the day of her murder? The end confirmed she didn’t do it, so what was she doing?
– Why did the killer tip Anna off after they murdered Helen Wang? I assumed originally it was to throw suspicion on her, but wouldn’t the killer want to avoid any suspicion on Anna?
– Why was Priya always talking to Anna’s mom? The author alludes that we should be concerned about this – I figured originally it was because of her mom’s dementia and the body in the backyard. But in light of the final revelation, I’m not sure why we should be concerned about this. Do we think Priya suspects the real killer?
– Not a plot hole, but overall I just thought both Priya and Richard were weak red herrings. Catherine was the obvious suspect, so I did like the little plot twist with Cat Jones.
– Why was Jack absolved of all suspicion? They make reference to the discovery of Catherine’s diaries, but they wouldn’t have found any murder plans within them… I know Priya witnessed Cat attack Anna’s mom as well, but again, not proof she was the murderer. Her children had been kidnapped, surely hysteria would be expected, or did the police not figure this out. They would have had to know now that both the kids parents were dead.

Two Trees Make a Forest

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jessica J. Lee
Genres: Non-Fiction, Memoir, History
Pub. Date: Jul. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)

I was really intrigued by the title and synopsis of this book and picked up a copy from my local bookstore. Soon afterwards it was shortlisted for Canada Reads 2021 and I was even more excited to read it!

Two Trees Make a Forest is Canadian author Jessica J. Lee’s second book. As the name suggests, it’s about her travels in Taiwan whilst trying to learn more about her grandparents past. Her grandparents were both Chinese, but immigrated to Taiwan where they raised their daughter, before eventually all settling in Canada. Lee grew up in close proximity to her grandparents, yet in many ways felt like she didn’t really know them. They talked little about the past and though her family held a close connection to Taiwan, Lee knew very little about their life there. After the death of her grandfather, the family discovered a letter he left behind about his past, inspiring Lee to visit Taiwan and learn more about both her family history, and the unique history of the island.

This was a well written book, but it was a struggle for me to finish it. I found Lee’s stories about her grandparents and family to be really interesting, however, they are really only a small piece of this book. Revisiting the title of the book, it does tell us that this book is as much about “Taiwan’s mountains and coasts” as it is about her family, but I guess I was just expecting something a little different. This is not a story of Lee following her roots around Taiwan, but rather Lee finding herself around Taiwan, while simultaneously coming to terms with the family history that has been in many ways lost to her.

Lee is an interesting storyteller and the book focuses just as much on Taiwan’s geographical history as it does her personal history. She talks about the history of the island the geographical uniqueness of it. Her love for Taiwan certainly shines through and I did learn some interesting facts about Taiwan and it’s history, but I also learned a lot more about Taiwan’s trees and mountains than I really bargained for. On paper, as an avid hiker, you would think I’d love it, but I’m not really a big non-fiction reader, and certainly not a history reader, so it just didn’t quite deliver on something I was excited about reading.

So it’s a bit of a hard book to rate because I did think it was good, I just wasn’t invested in it. I read everything about her family history, but I ended up skim reading a lot of the geographical information. Good, just not for me.

The Woman They Could Not Silence

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Kate Moore
Genres: Non-Fiction, History
Pub. Date: Jun. 21 2021 (read Jan. 2021)

To all the women who have had someone call them crazy.

I stumbled across The Woman They Could Not Silence on Netgalley and immediately put in a request because I loved Kate Moore’s last book, The Radium Girls. In a similar vein, her new book shines a light on an important part of women’s history that has been somewhat lost to time. Moore excels at writing this kind of journalistic memoir in a way that is riveting to read and immediately connects readers to the protagonists. Despite this being a non-fiction book, it reads like fiction, bringing historical figures to light in a way that makes readers really empathize with their plight. In short, Moore knows how to ignite righteous anger at the injustices that have been, and continue to be, perpetrated against women.

This story starts in Illinois in 1860 and centers around one woman, Elizabeth Packard. After 21 years of marriage and bearing 6 children with her husband Theophilus, he has Elizabeth committed to the Illinois State Insane Asylum against her will. Her crime? Questioning Theophilus’ bible study teachings in the church in which he is a pastor. Pushing back against your husband, questioning religion, and being intelligent in general were all signs of mental illness in the 1860’s, and as such, Theophilus has no difficulty in getting his wife locked up.

Elizabeth immediately fights back against the claim that she is insane, but recognizing that such pleas will only make her look more insane, she does her best to maintain her dignity at the asylum and after her first meeting with the state hospital director, Dr. Andrew McFarland, with whom she develops a good relationship, she is sure her release will not be long in coming.

Though Dr. McFarland is unable to determine the root of Elizabeth’s insanity, he is convinced it is there and will be revealed in time. Due to her intelligence, she is granted special privileges at the hospital. However, despite these privileges, Elizabeth soon becomes aware of the level of abuse that is being perpetrated by hospital aides within the walls of the hospital and starts stirring up trouble with the other inmates. This results in the revoking of Elizabeth’s privileges and life at the hospital soon becomes very hard for her.

The rest of the novel is about Elizabeth’s struggles in the asylum and her fight for freedom. Elizabeth is very intelligent and an accomplished writer, and though Dr. McFarland tries to silence her within the walls of the hospital, she is determined to record and share her story. She makes friends within the asylum and keeps a secret journal of all the abuses she witnesses. I couldn’t help but compare her to Alexander Hamilton because the woman constantly wrote like she was running out of time!

However, her goals are not only to record history, but to change it. Elizabeth is strategic in going about this. She knows that raging against the machine will get you nowhere in an insane asylum and so she goes about cultivating relationships and manipulating those around her, including McFarland. I found it really interesting to read about Elizabeth’s experiences and progression while at the asylum.

The whole system is completely unjust for so many reasons, but the two that stand are that, first, almost no proof is required to lock a woman up in an asylum. All Theophilus needed was 2 certificates of insanity from local doctors, which he was easily able to procure thanks to his influence as a man and pastor. Unmarried women are entitled to a trial before being shipped off to the asylum, but married women need only the desire of their husbands. As they are considered his property, they are not permitted any voice of their own. Many of the other women in the asylum were in the same situation as Elizabeth and had been sent there without any legal rights.

Second, the whole premise of what qualifies a person as insane or cured is entirely stacked against the patients. Like I said, women could basically be committed for showing any inkling of self thought or governance. Theophilus didn’t like that Elizabeth was questioning things or flouting his authority, so he quickly put an end to it. But what’s really enraging is that women who push back against the diagnosis of insanity only further the diagnosis. Showing any kind of indignation at anything is basically a sign of insanity. Women were only considered cured when they would finally submit to everything: the will of the abusive attendants, their doctor, and their husbands. The injustice of the system is that it literally conspires to make you insane and then only release you at the moment when your spirit is finally irreparably broken.

I say Elizabeth’s progression is interesting because she somehow manages to hold on to this one thread of truth throughout the entire ordeal, the idea that ‘I am not insane’. She is determined to be free and she is determined to be free under her own will, not through submission. The longer she is imprisoned, the more frenzied she becomes in her desperation to get out. She documents her experiences and ideas in a kind of manic fervour that you can’t help but question if maybe she is going a little bit insane. Rather than diminish, her ideas of justice and equality of women only grow more and more ambitious to the point where she envisions women as totally equal to men and able to even hold public office, something that is quite radical in 1860 and unlikely to get you released from an insane asylum.

I don’t want to give away the whole book because even though it’s historical, it’s still a story and I did take joy from the experience of having no idea whether Elizabeth was going to succeed and to what degree. She inspired a book to be written about her, so I knew she was going to have some level of success, but it was honestly so bleak, it was hard to imagine how a woman would ever recover from either the trauma or the stigma of such an asylum.

But Elizabeth is a fighter and I honestly can’t imagine a woman with more spirit. She had a lot of influence on early American politics and it is a shame that her name is virtually unknown, even among the roll call of suffragettes. But such is the way of women’s history and I love that we keep hearing about more and more women who have contributed greatly to our society but who’s legacies have been little preserved.

The author added a post script at the end of the book that I really liked. The book will make obvious the impact Elizabeth’s writings and efforts had on the women’s rights movement, but it also highlights how these same ideas are still present in today’s society. The idea of insanity is still used today to threaten, discredit, and silence women. Men have always used the excuse of ‘craziness’ to belittle women. The idea that fault lies only with women is still wildly believed by many men and women, even if only subconsciously. When men don’t like the ideas or actions put forth by women, it’s only too easy for them to dismiss them entirely with the callously thrown away phrase “she’s crazy”. I think we see it used most often by men to either dismiss the actions or requests or a partner or to speak of their ex. But even women use it to describe other women, particularly in scenarios where it relates to how other women interact with men (I’m thinking of reality television here).

But the idea is everywhere. Moore draws attention to its presence even at the top level of the American government when Trump once screamed at Pelosi for being wrong in the head. Powerful men still seek to silence women through the threat of insanity. For this reason, I thought this an extremely important read. A lot of the content didn’t surprise me, but experiencing it through Elizabeth’s eyes did help to put it into perspective. Even after all the work that Elizabeth did, Dr. McFarland is still kindly remembered by the eyes of history while Elizabeth has more or less been forgotten.

This wasn’t a perfect book. I thought the writing was a little simplified in the beginning, though it got much stronger as the story went on. I also thought the story could have been shortened, some parts are a little over indulgent and I fear the length may deter some readers from this. But overall, still an excellent read and I would definitely recommend!