The Four Winds

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There is a spoiler, right off the jacket cover. The cover talks about an "agonizing choice" - fight or flight, but as soon as the Prologue you read that she fled. The book opens in Dalhart, Texas with the Wolcott family. Mr. Wolcott sells farm machines during a time of great recovery after the drought of 1908; a time when horse and buggies have only recently been replaced by cars.

Elsa loves to read and the novel contains allusion to many literary classics.

This is a great read - but be warned, the ending is sad. I was reading this while we had reading time in my classroom - not a good idea, I don't like to cry in front of my students.

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex: 1

Religion: 4

Gruesome: 0

Suspense: 2

Morality: 3

Traditional: 4

Sex - ref. to "Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" and "the desires it aroused" (p. 9) Teenagers in the back of a truck (p. 21 & p. 34) Minor, no details. (p. 414)

Religion - end Ch. 4 a girl agrees to convert to Catholicism for love. Inter-faith prayers for rain. (p. 68) The family went to church even in the hard times. (p. 139) Elsa called the Great Plains "God forsaken" and said she "didn't say that lightly". (p. 182) Letter ended with an exchange of prayers. (p. 239) "Watch over us Lord" (p. 204) "God help her" (p. 205) "She trusted God to watch out for them." (p. 209) "Elsa bowed her head in prayer." "She prayed to the Virgin Mary."(p. 210) In response to a man claiming to be a rainmaker, "I reckon you can't prompt God that way but who knows". (p. 251) God will provide - there seemed to be some doubt about it. (end Ch. 21) A young girl is angry at God after a baby died. Sunlight through windows was "pure as the gaze of God". (p. 326) Talk about "small blessings" when Elsa got a new-used dress after losing everything. In a letter home, Elsa said they felt blessed to be in a cabin - even after a flood took everything they owned." (p. 335) A girl in tragedy says the first prayer she's prayed in years. (p. 435)

Gruesome - no examples

Suspense - Ch. 9, especially at the end - what would / did happen to Rafe?

Morality - the hospital wouldn't help a migrant woman in labor. Most people are good to each other.

Traditional - a father strikes his 18 year old daughter for shaming the family by going out dressed like a flapper (p. 23)

I didn't do any fact-checking, but it does seem like the book is well-researched. The Author's Note reveals that a lot more was fictionalized than I originally suspected. In Ch. 25 we meet Jack Valen who tried to unionize the workers. I imagined he was a real person,but he wasn't. I also imagined that his real name might have been Valenzuela. (yes, I watched La Bamba growing up and was thinking of how Ritchie Valens changed his name from Valenzuela) I was fascinated at the thought of stringing a line between the house and the barn so they could follow it and not get blown off course in the dust storms. I also thought the detail about putting a chain from the axle of the truck to the ground so it wouldn't short out was interesting. (p. 25)

I was surprised that, even when they got out of Texas, the drought was a problem, water was still scarce, dust and dirt continued, and there were food riots.

There was one part that bothered me, though. Chapter 7 opens with Elsa lacking the energy to stomp a large spider - life in the heat required conservation. "It was best to do chores in the relative cool of dawn and dusk." (p. 76) It was not yet 10 a.m., she'd been up for hours. After she scrubbed the kitchen floor she went on to scrub the rest of the 8 rooms, THEN she gathered the rugs, took them out and beat them. I think she should've done this first. Picking up the rug may cause it to drop dirt on the freshly scrubbed floor. Wouldn't it be better to do outside chores early then work in the shade of the house?

I can forgive this apparent conflict though - because the writing in Chapter 10, after Elsa read the letter from Rafe is phenomenal. Hannah's words evoked such empathy. This is a masterfully written chapter. It is heartbreaking all the way through.

I also found some irony because there has been a lot of coverage recently about the numbers of immigrants flooding into Texas and other parts of the U.S. Not everyone is happy about it. At the end of Ch. 19 there was some talk that the people in California didn't want the migrants from Texas. Additionally, many people from California are now moving to Texas and the Texans don't want them.

Discussion Questions

After Elsa had been sick as a teenager, her grandfather told her, "Don't worry about dying, worry about not living." (p. 12) What good advice have your grandparents given you?

At the end of Chapter 1 Elsa cut her hair, only to be quickly cut down by her mother.

Have you ever been drastically brave? How did it go?

Elsa dealt with rejection by being quiet and invisible. (p. 27) How do you deal with it?

The 1934 section opens with a quote from FDR: I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished...The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. How do you think the nation is doing with this concept?

What were the four winds referred to in the title? Was it human traits? Circumstances? Phases of life? The four time periods in the novel - 1921, 1934, 1935, 1936?

Elsa wondered if she should be truthful with the kids. (p. 118) What would you have done?

The Martinelli family had a special penny. Does your family pass down any special items?

Is this a timely commentary on race? "When times is tough and jobs is scarce, folks blame the outsider." (p. 232) "People get scared when they lose their jobs and they tend to blame outsiders. The first step is to call them criminals." (p. 325)

Did you think they would find Rafe in California?

Compare the journeys in "American Dirt" and "The Four Winds".

Did you think Jack Valen was going to become romantic with either Elsa or Loreda?

Elsa thought Loreda was brave when she insisted on going to the union meeting in camp at midnight. How much was youth / innocence and how much was bravery?

Did you expect anyone to die? If so, who?

Would you read a sequel about Loreda in college? Would she be an activist?

What about a sequel about Rafe?

Theme Ideas

Decorate like the fourth of July.

Decorate with purple and pink flowers like Rafe brought to the barn. (p. 33)

Decorate with a loaf of Wonder Bread like the billboard when they got to California. (p. 214)

Serve what the Wolcott's brought to the fourth of July celebration: molasses stack cakes, spicy gingerbread, upside-down peach cake, ham with red-eye gravy and grits. (Ch. 3) There are other food ideas on the same page.

Serve arancini (p. 53) - the first thing Rose taught Elsa to cook.

Serve wine with a sliced, preserved peach. (p. 74)

Serve fresh baked bread like they made on the farm. (p. 94)

Serve cannoli with sweetened ricotta filling and minestrone like they took to the Founder's Day. (Ch. 8, p. 97)

Serve Cream of Wheat with butter and cream, and coffee. (Ch. 11, p. 130)

Serve orzata and sugar cookies like Elsa took to Ant in the hospital (p. 180-181)

"sweet syrupy drink...made...from almonds" "Elsa added a splash of it to a bottle she'd filled with canned milk and shook it to make bubbles."

Serve licorice whips like Mr. Pavlov gave them at the store (p. 145) and also like they got when they first arrived in California. (p. 215)

Serve Loreda's 13th birthday meal - fettuccine with bits of browned pancetta in cream sauce and a ricotta cassata with preserved peaches. (Ch. 13, p. 154)

Serve bologna sandwiches, like the first night camping, on white bread drizzled with olive oil and slices of onion.

Serve honey drizzled polenta cakes and coffee. (p. 204)

Serve ham with canned tomatoes, garlic and potato cubes (p. 223) like the first night they camped in California or ham and potato hash (p. 248).

Serve hush puppies, polenta cakes, and casserole made of "canned tomato soup and macaroni and chopped up hot dogs". (p. 264)

Serve Elsa's new cuisine (p. 268): Pork n Beans with corn syrup, chipped beef on toast, hot dogs, "saltine crackers fried in oil and dusted with sugar." - "American food"

Serve Hershey's chocolate bars like Elsa gave Ant for Christmas.

Serve Coke from bottles, bean and cheese and pork tamales with spiced sauce like Jack took in the picnic basket at the park opening. (p. 367)