The desperation of the Dust Bowl laid bare

Review: Vivien Horler

The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)

In the winter of 1934-35, snow stained red by dust storms blowing east drifted on to the fields of New England in the US.

This was the time of the Dust Bowl, when huge areas of the Great Plains, including parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and neighbouring states, experienced an appalling 10-year drought, exacerbating the effects of the Great Depression.

Terrible dust storms, made up mostly of precious topsoil, swept across the country. Crops died, farms were ruined, and people suffered from both malnutrition and an ailment called dust pneumonia, caused by breathing in dust-laden air.

Between 1930 and 1940 around 3.5million people, not all of them farmers, left the Great Plains and headed west; according to Wikipedia it is said that 12% of today’s Californians have so-called “Okie” heritage.

The horror of the times is the subject of The Grapes of Wrath, the classic by John Steinbeck. Now brilliant contemporary US writer Kristin Hannah – author of such sweeping novels as The Nightingale and The Great Alone – has turned her attention to this dreadful period in US history.

In her mid 20s, Elsa, the daughter of a middle-class family living in the 1920s Texan Panhandle town of  Dalhart, feels desperate. She is somewhat sickly, somewhat plain, assumes she’ll never marry and feels isolated from her own family.

One night she slips out and meets Rafe, an Italian and certainly not the sort of man her parents would approve of. He makes her feel brave. They make love in the back of Rafe’s truck. They meet a few times, and then the inevitable happens – Elsa becomes pregnant.

Her furious and ashamed family drive her to Rafe Martinelli’s parent’s farm and abandon her.

His family take her to their hearts, aided of course by the fact she is about to produce their first grandchild. And for the first 10 years or so, things are not bad. The corn grows, the farm prospers, and the daughter, Loreda, remembers this as a time of bounty.

But by the time the second child, Ant, comes along, things are becoming desperate. There are no good years in his young lifetime. One day Rafe, who had always imagined a bigger life away from the farm, disappears, and Elsa is left with the children and her in-laws.

The descriptions of life on a farm where there is no water, little food, and little feed for the livestock makes tough reading. Buildings are damaged by the terrible winds, and a fine dust coats everything. Bereft of her father, Loreda blames her mother for his departure.

Then Ant gets desperately ill with dust pneumonia, and Elsa realises she has to take her children away. They bid an emotional farewell to Rafe’s parents and, taking the farm truck, head west.

They eventually reach California, the dreamed-of land of milk and honey, only to find hundreds of thousands of others have had the same idea; there is virtually no work and people are forced to live in crowded, unhygienic squatter camps.

Elsa, who as a lonely child always found comfort in reading, is determined that her children will get an education. But local schools are unwelcoming to “Okies”, and when the cotton crop comes in, it makes sense for the children to help pick the boles and boost the family income.

With so many potential workers, the farmers are able to cut the wages and cut them again, and they have the backing of the state authorities. This provides a fertile climate for labour activists, and major confrontations loom.

This is in no way a feel-good novel, but it is one of courage, determination and love. It is also worth pondering, when we read of the suffering of the “Okies” who gave up everything they knew for what they hoped would be a better life, the fates of many people who leave their homes in this country and come to the cities, only to end up in squalid squatter camps.

American history is one thing; the desperation of Elsa and her children is repeated in our cities every day.


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