Title: The Four Winds
Author: Kristin Hannah
Read In: 2021
Purchase: Bookshop.org (affiliate link)
The Four Winds: A Novel
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A life, not merely an existence. That was her dream: a world in which her life and her choices were not defined by the rheumatic fever she’d contracted at fourteen, a life where she uncovered strengths heretofore unknown, where she was judged on more than her appearance.
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If she didn’t do something soon, something drastic, her future would look no different from her present.
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There had to be opportunities out there, but where would she find them? The library. Books held the answer to every question.
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Elsa still missed her grandfather every day. He had been a blustery man, given to drink and arguing, but what he’d loved, he’d loved with abandon. He’d grieved the loss of his wife for years. He’d been the only Wolcott besides Elsa who loved reading, and he’d frequently taken her side in family disagreements. Don’t worry about dying, Elsa. Worry about not living. Be brave.
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Mama looked up from her roses, tipped her new sunbonnet back, and said, “Elsa. Where have you been?” “Library.” “You should have let Papa drive you. The walk is too much for you.” “I’m fine, Mama.” Honestly. It sometimes seemed they wanted her to be ill.
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Even though Prohibition made liquor illegal, there was plenty to be had for the men, who were a tough, sturdy group of immigrants from Russia, Germany, Italy, and Ireland. They’d come here with nothing and made something out of that nothing and they didn’t cotton to being told how to live, not by each other or by a government that hardly seemed to know the Great Plains existed.
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He bent down, scooped up a handful of dirt. “My land tells its story if you listen. The story of our family. We plant, we tend, we harvest. I make wine from grape cuttings that I brought here from Sicily, and the wine I make reminds me of my father. It binds us, this land, one to another, as it has for generations. Now it will bind you to us.” “I’ve never tended to anything.” He looked at her. “Do you want to change that?” Elsa saw compassion in his dark eyes, as if he knew how afraid she’d been in her life,
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Elsa learned—to her surprise and to her mother-in-law’s—that she wasn’t a quitter. She woke up each morning well before her husband and got into the kitchen in time to make coffee. She learned to make and eat and love food she had never heard of, made from ingredients she’d never seen—olive oil, fettuccine, arancini, pancetta. She learned how to disappear on a farm: work harder than anyone else and don’t complain.
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And Grandma and Mom? They were like all the farm wives in Lonesome Tree. They worked their fingers to the bone, rarely laughing and hardly talking. When they did talk, it was never about anything interesting. Daddy was the only one who talked about ideas or choices or dreams. He talked about travel and adventures and all the lives a person could live. He’d repeatedly told Loreda that there was a big beautiful world beyond this farm.
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Loreda couldn’t remember the last time she’d let Mom kiss her. Loreda didn’t want the kind of love that trapped. She wanted to be told she could fly high, be anything and go anywhere—she wanted the things her father wanted. Someday she would smoke cigarettes and go to jazz clubs and get a job. Be modern. Her mother’s idea of a woman’s place was too sad for Loreda to bear.
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Elsa and Rose combined their individual optimism into a communal hope, stronger and more durable in the combination.
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she hurried, she would be able to do laundry today, bleach everything into whiteness. There was something about fresh sheets hanging on the line that lifted her spirits. Perhaps it was simply a vision of having accomplished a thing that improved her family’s life, even if no one noticed.
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She’d pulled dozens of leather-bound books out of bookshelves and dusted behind them, unable to stop herself from smelling the leather, the paper, even reading a sentence or two. Her life as a reader felt far away.
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She slowed the truck to a stop and rolled down the window. It was not her husband, of course. “You need a ride, friend?” she asked. The man glanced sideways. The skin on his face was tightly drawn over sharp bones. His cheeks were hollow. “Naw. Thanks, tho. Ain’t nowhere to go and I got me a rhythm.”
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Loreda hated to get out of the chair. It felt magical, a portal to a what-if world where ditch-dwellers turned into princesses. Her legs were a little shaky, to be honest. In the mirror, she’d seen more than her face. She’d seen the girl she’d been before all of this. A dreamer, a believer. Someone who would go places. How had she forgotten all of that? It gave her a newfound, or refound, hope, but it fed the anger in her, too.
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A library. Magic. She opened the door and walked right in, standing tall, the girl she’d been raised to be. A girl who believed in education and dreamed of being a reporter. Or a novelist. Something interesting, anyway. The first thing she noticed was the smell of books. She inhaled deeply and felt transported for a moment to Lonesome Tree. In her bedroom, light on, reading … Home.
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Loreda touched the book, lifted it to her face, and inhaled the remembered scent that made her think of reading at night … with Stella after school; listening to Daddy telling her bedtime stories. Like a flower that had been sucked dry in a drought and felt the first drop of spring rain, Loreda felt herself revive.
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They both knew better. It was something to be ashamed of. Americans weren’t supposed to take handouts from the government. They were supposed to work hard and succeed on their own.
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“Believe me, Loreda, whatever the question is, communism is not the answer. We’re Americans.
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“Come on.” Loreda dragged Ant to the tent, where a woman in a black coat stood all by herself smoking a cigarette. She wore black wool pants and a creamy white sweater and a beret. Bright red lipstick accentuated the pallor of her skin. Loreda approached the tent. “Hello?” The woman pulled the cigarette from her bright red lips and turned. Her dark eyes narrowed into an assessing gaze that swept Loreda from head to foot. “Would you like some coffee?” Loreda had never seen a woman like this. So … elegant, or maybe it was just boldness. She was probably Mom’s age, but her style and beauty were somehow ageless.
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She looked at Jack. Even with all they’d been through, the long, terrible night, there was a strength in him that comforted her. You could count on a man like that, she thought. A man who didn’t just spout ideas, but fought for them, took beatings for them, and stayed in place. If only her father had been more like Jack. A rebel instead of a dreamer. Daddy had given Loreda words; it was actions that mattered. She knew that now. Leaving. Staying. Fighting. Or walking away. Loreda wanted to be like Jack, not like her faithless father. She wanted to stand for something and tell the world she was better than this, that America should be better than letting her live this way.
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ELSA WOKE TO SUNSHINE coming through glass windows and it made her miss the farmhouse in Lonesome Tree. She would write about that in her journal later, about the simple joy of seeing sunshine through clean glass, golden, pure as the gaze of God, and how it could lift one’s spirit.
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She saw Ant and Loreda handing out food on trays. The sight of them helping others when they themselves had lost everything made her proud. After all they’d suffered—the hardship, the loss, the disappointment—there they were, smiling and handing out food. Helping people. It gave her hope for the future.
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“We’re proud,” she said. “We believe in hard work and a fair chance. Not one for all and all for one.”
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Fear is smart until…” He headed for the door, paused as he reached for the knob. “Until what?” He looked back at her. “Until you realize you’re afraid of the wrong thing.”
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THAT NIGHT, WHILE THE children slept, Elsa got her journal out of the box that had been in the truck. She turned through the pages. The children had been right that writing helped. Words jumped out at her: rain, baby in a lavender blanket, no work, waiting for cotton, the demoralizing rain. Tonight, later, she would write about her constant fear, how it strangled her all the time and the constant effort it took not to show it to her children. Writing about it would remind her that they had survived. As bad as the flood had been, they were still here.
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What could be better than skipping school to visit the library?
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The difference between Loreda and her mother wasn’t fear—they shared that. It was fire. Her mother’s passion had gone out. Or maybe she’d never had any. The only time Loreda had seen genuine anger from her mother was the night they’d buried the Deweys’ baby. Loreda wanted to be angry. What had Jack said to her the first day they met? You have fire in you, kid. Don’t let the bastards snuff it out. Something like that. Loreda didn’t want to be the kind of woman who suffered in silence.
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Jack stood in the front of the room, commanded attention. Although he was dressed like many of the migrants around him, in faded, stained overalls and a frayed denim shirt beneath a dusty brown suit coat, there was vibrancy to him, an aliveness that was like no one she’d ever met before. Jack believed in things and fought to make the world a better place. He was the kind of man a girl could count on.
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“Mom, if you’d listen to him—” “No,” Elsa said. “And neither will you. It’s my job to keep you safe. By God, I’ve failed at everything else. I will not fail at that. Do you hear me?” Loreda stopped. Elsa had no choice but to stop, too, and turn back. “What?” “Do you really think you’ve failed me?” “Look at us. Walking back to a cabin smaller than our old toolshed. Both of us skinny as matchsticks and hungry all of the time. Of course I’ve failed you.” “Mom,” Loreda said, moving close. “I’m alive because of you. I go to school. I can think because you want to make sure I always do. You haven’t failed me. You’ve saved me.”
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“A strike.” She said the frightening word quietly. “Can it work?” “Maybe.” She was grateful for his honesty. “They’ll hurt us for trying.” “Yeah,” he said. “But life is more than what happens to us, Elsa. We have choices to make.” “I’m not a brave woman.” “And yet here you are, standing at the edge of battle.” His words touched a chord in her. “My grandfather was a Texas Ranger. He used to tell me that courage was a lie. It was just fear that you ignored.”
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“The Brennans ain’t comin’,” Ant said. “They said we’re crazy to come.”
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“My life. It’s … more of an idea. A cause. Or it has been.”
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Jack stood. She walked boldly up to him. In his eyes, she saw love. For her. It was young, new, not deep and settled and familiar like Rose and Tony’s, but love just the same, or at least the beautiful, promising start of it. All of her life she’d waited for a moment like this, yearned for it, and she would not let it pass by unnoticed, unremarked upon. Time felt incredibly precious in these hours before the strike. “I promised a girlfriend something crazy.” “Oh, yeah?” She brought her hands up, linked them behind his head. “I’ve never asked a man to dance. And I know there’s no music.” “Elsa,” he whispered, leaning in to kiss her, moving to a song that wasn’t being played. “We are the music.” Elsa closed her eyes and let him lead. For you, Jean.
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Love is what remains when everything else is gone. This is what I should have told my children when we left Texas. What I will tell them tonight. Not that they will understand yet. How could they? I am forty years old, and I only just learned this fundamental truth myself. Love. In the best of times, it is a dream. In the worst of times, a salvation. I am in love. There it is. I’ve written it down. Soon I will say it out loud. To him. I am in love. As crazy and ridiculous and implausible as it sounds, I am in love. And I am loved in return. And this—love—gives me the courage I need for today. The four winds have blown us here, people from all across the country, to the very edge of this great land, and now, at last, we make our stand, fight for what we know to be right. We fight for our American dream, that it will be possible again. Jack says that I am a warrior and, while I don’t believe it, I know this: A warrior believes in an end she can’t see and fights for it. A warrior never gives up. A warrior fights for those weaker than herself. It sounds like motherhood to me.
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“The world can be changed by a handful of courageous people. Today we fight on behalf of those who are afraid.
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“Men wear masks because they’re ashamed of what they’re doing,” Jack said through the megaphone. “They know this is wrong.”
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Elsa didn’t need them to tell her she was dying. She could feel her body shutting down. But not her heart. Her heart was so full it couldn’t hold all of the love she felt when she looked at these three who had shown her the world. She’d thought she had a lifetime to show them her love. Time. Hers had gone too fast. She’d only just discovered who she was. She had counted on a lifetime to teach her children what they needed to know, but she didn’t have that gift of grace and time. Still, she had given them what mattered: they were loved and they knew it. Everything else was decoration. Love remains.
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Loreda took the pouch in her hand, held it as her tears fell. “What do I do without you?” Elsa tried to smile but couldn’t. She was too tired. Too weak. “You live, Loreda,” she whispered. “And know … every single second … how much I loved you.” Find your voice and use it … take chances … never give up. Elsa couldn’t keep her eyes open anymore. There was so much more to say, a lifetime’s worth of love and advice to bestow on her children, but there was no more time … Be brave, she might have said, or maybe she only thought it.
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Loreda sighed. “I miss her so much I can’t breathe. How will I make it like this for the rest of my life?” She was grateful he didn’t answer. There was truth in his silence. She already knew this was a grief she would never get over. “I never said I was proud of her,” Loreda said. “How could I—” “Close your eyes,” Jack said. “Tell her now. I’ve been talking to my mom that way for years.” “Do you think she hears?” “Moms know everything, kid.” Loreda closed her eyes and thought of all the things she wished she’d said to her mother. I love you. I’m proud of you. I’ve never seen anyone so brave. Why was I so mean for so long? You gave me wings, Mom. Did you know that? I feel you here. Will I always? When she opened her eyes, there were stars overhead.
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my love for you will outlive me.