The Four Winds – Kristin Hannah

Although I am certainly familiar with Kristin Hannah, The Four Winds is the first book I have read by her. This novel has loads of positive reviews and made several ‘Best of’ lists, and while I certainly had no trouble reading it, I am not sure this book has turned me into a fan.

Elsa Wolcott has been lonely her whole life. She is tall and awkward, skinny and shy.

It didn’t take a genius to look down the road of Elsa’s life and see her future. She would stay here, in her parents’ house on Rock Road, being cared for by Maria, the maid who’d managed the household forever. Someday, when Maria retired, Elsa would be left to care for her parents, and then, when they were gone, she would be alone.

Elsa is twenty-five when she meets Rafe Martinelli, a young man “so handsome she felt a little sick.” Soon after meeting Rafe, she discovers that she is pregnant and her father packs her up and drives her out to the Martinelli farm in Lonesome Tree and leaves her there. Although Rafe is not unkind, he is also not all that interested in marrying Elsa, but his parents, Mary and Tony, insist and soon Elsa finds herself absorbed into this warm, Italian family. Despite knowing nothing about farming life, Elsa is a hard worker and proves herself willing to do whatever it takes, which turns out to be a lot more than she bargained for when the droughts and wind storms come.

Years of drought, combined with the economic ravages of the Great Depression, had brought the Great Plains to its knees.

They’d suffered through these dry years in the Texas Panhandle, but with the whole country devastated by the Crash of ’29 and twelve million people out of work, the big-city newspapers didn’t bother covering the drought. The government offered no assistance, not that the farmers wanted it anyway. They were too proud to live on the dole.

Elsa and her family stumble through devastating windstorms, lack of water, dying animals, devastated crops, scorching temperatures and dust for many years until Elsa’s youngest child, Anthony, gets ill from dust pneumonia and Elsa makes the decision to take her children to California, the supposed land of milk and honey. It turns out things are not any better there.

The Four Winds is an easy read and I liked some of these characters a lot, especially Elsa’s in-laws. I was familiar with the Dustbowl and what happened during the 1930s, but I didn’t know anything about how migrant workers were treated in California, when they arrived by the hundreds of thousands in the 1930s.

What I didn’t like was Hannah’s very obvious emotional manipulation. I knew she wanted me to cry – which I did not. Perhaps that’s because the last 75 pages or so felt rushed, or maybe it’s just that I could hear the swelling music and the language felt purposely manipulative. I love a good cry, and there were certainly some things in this book that should have had me reaching for the tissue, but it just didn’t work for me.

The Fountains of Silence – Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys has a gift. Well, she has many gifts, to be fair, but I particularly admire her ability to write characters that absolutely lift off the page and linger in your imagination long after the last page has been turned.

At my high school, we introduce readers to Sepetys in grade nine, when we read Between Shades of Gray. I have yet to encounter a student, even  those who identify as non-readers, who doesn’t rip through that book, many reading way ahead of the class. In grade ten, when we introduce Salt to the Sea there are very few groans. Again, students quickly become wholly invested in the stories of the characters. When I read the final few pages out loud to my grade ten classes in the fall, I had to stop several times because I was so close to tears I couldn’t get the words out. That’s how you know these characters have become real to you, I guess: you care about their fate.

fountainsI was very excited to read Sepetys’s latest book, The Fountains of Silence, because I just knew that I was going to meet a new cast of characters to fall in love with, and I wasn’t wrong.

Daniel Matheson is almost nineteen when he travels to Madrid with his parents during the summer of 1957. His father is an oil tycoon from Texas, and his mother is originally from Spain. Daniel’s dream is to become a photo journalist, but his father disapproves. While Mr. Matheson does business, Daniel takes pictures, and in doing so he starts to see that sunny Madrid is one city to tourists and another to people who struggle beneath Francisco Franco’s yoke.

Ana works in the hotel and is assigned to help the Mathesons. Her story is one of poverty and struggle. Her father was executed and her mother imprisoned and “Her parents’ offense has left Ana rowing dark waters of dead secrets. Born into a long shadow of shame, she must never speak publicly of her parents. She must live in silence.”

Ana and Daniel feel an instant attraction to each other, but it’s the classic case of being from opposite sides of the social spectrum. There is so much Ana wants to say and can’t, and so much that Daniel doesn’t understand, but certainly will.

Although Ana and Daniel’s story is central to the plot, there are other compelling characters in this book, including Ana’s older brother Rafa and his childhood friend, Fuga; Ben, a seasoned journalist who takes Daniel under his wing, and Puri, Ana’s cousin who works at a local orphanage. Although Ana and Daniel will take up most of the space in your heart, all the characters you’ll encounter are compelling and interesting.

Once again, Sepetys has mined history to find her story. This one concerns the thousands of children who were stolen from their parents and adopted by more ‘suitable’ families. It also provides a window into the period of the Spanish Civil War and the years immediately following, when “Helpless children and teenagers became innocent victims of wretched violence and ideological pressure.”

Their stories deserve to be told and Sepetys does them, and us, a great service by telling them.

Highly recommended.


Coventry – Helen Humphreys

On November 14, 1940, Coventry, a city in England’s West Midlands, was devastated by a German bombing raid that  leveled two thirds of the city, including the city’s cathedral, which was built in the 14th century.


This event is the backdrop of Helen Humphrey’s 2008 novel, Coventry. The novel captures the horror and chaos of that night as seen through the eyes of Harriet Marsh, a 44-year-old woman who is acting as a fire-watcher on the cathedral rooftop and Maeve, an artist whose 22-year-old son, Jeremy,  is also acting as a fire-watcher the evening the Germans dropped 500 tonnes of explosives on the city.

coventryWith the exception of a flashback to introduce us to Harriet’s husband, Owen, and to allow Harriet and Maeve to briefly meet, the novel spends its time during the ten-hour raid. Although it might be hard to imagine the scene, Humphreys does capture the horrible chaos of that night in simple, unembellished prose.

The bombing shakes the ground so that people fleeing through the streets stumble as though drunk. The trembling earth shifts them one way, and then the other, and Harriet finds herself reaching out to steady herself on walls that are no longer standing. She falls in the street, picks herself up from the shaking ground, and falls again.

Nearly 600 people were killed on that night; over 1000 more were injured. It’s perhaps not easy to imagine the chaos, but Humphreys does manage to capture it as Harriet and Jeremy make their way through the city to their respective homes. The horrors of war are all around them: people who have been fatally wounded, people buried under rubble, animals wandering aimlessly. Maeve leaves the shelter of the pub and heads home, but she and Jeremy miss each other.


The British were known for their stoic resilience during the Second World War. Some of that resilience is seen on display in Coventry. In one particular scene, Harriet and Jeremy happen upon a makeshift first aid station and while Jeremy jumps in to help, Harriet wanders off to see if she can’t rustle up some tea. C’mon! It doesn’t get any more British than that.

How did these people cope? They just did what they had to do and when it seemed like they couldn’t go on, they did that, too.

I am a fan of Helen Humphreys. I loved her novel The Lost Garden  which I talked about here.  I also really enjoyed Afterimage, which I read before I started this blog. What I admire about her writing is her ability to capture moments so perfectly. Perhaps that ability comes from having started her writing career as a poet.  I just know that she is one of those rare writers who make you pause and nod your head in agreement.

Coventry is a short novel that, nevertheless, captures the horror and the unexpected beauty to be found amidst  chaos.