Kristin Hannah has written so many novels that she can’t quite remember whether her latest, The Four Winds (St. Martin’s, Feb.), an epic historical set during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, is number 24 or 25. (It’s 24.) “I’m going to have to trust you on that,” she says with a laugh by phone from her home outside of Seattle. There, she’s “pretty much in lockdown mode again, surviving day by day and looking to a better future... which is a lot like my book.”
Like Hannah’s bestselling 2015 novel, The Nightingale, about two sisters in occupied France during WWII, The Four Winds covers a moment pulled from history. This time the focus is on Elsa Martinelli, who, abandoned by her husband, leaves her home on a drought-stricken Texas farm in the 1930s and travels to California in hopes of finding a better life for her children, Loreda and Anthony. But a bad situation quickly turns worse: the family faces hardships ranging from violence to deep poverty, cruelty at the hands of the farm owners they must work for to survive, and the pain of being cast off and considered less than, as “Okies.” As Elsa says at one point, “It’s wrong.... This isn’t who we are in America.” Yet despite the despair, there are uplifting moments of friendship, joy, empowerment, and love: the stuff that, no matter how devastating the moment, humans survive on.
The Four Winds is Hannah’s ninth novel published by St. Martin’s. Work on it began several years ago, when she was touring for The Nightingale, an instant bestseller that SMP says has sold 4.5 million copies in all formats. Seeing the effect that book had on readers, Hannah “started to want to write a book that was that powerful and that emotional and that meaningful, but was deeply American,” she says. “I was looking for a lost American story I could tell through a woman’s eyes. And the Great Depression just sort of jumped out at me.”
Growing up on the West Coast, Hannah, 60, had a basic knowledge of what had happened during the time period, but when she dug into the research, she was stunned at the level of tragedy and difficulty people faced. With the drama and the stakes so high, her plot was already suggested, she says. The question was, who did she want to tell the story? Enter Elsa, who Hannah claims is one of her favorite fictional creations, a woman who goes from feeling that she has no validity at all to finding her voice and standing up not just for herself and her children but for other oppressed people. “That, to me, was the most beautiful story arc,” she says. “Female strength, female empowerment, female friendship, motherhood—these are things that I believe in. What I really love is taking those themes and issues and blowing the barn doors off by including them in places that you don’t expect, in more historically male situations.”
Hannah has been a working novelist for 30 years, but she didn’t start out as a writer. “When I was, I guess, 24 or 25, my mother was dying of breast cancer, and I was in my third year of law school,” she says. “I was visiting her and complaining about law school, and she said, ‘Well, don’t worry, you’re going to be a writer, anyway.’ ” (At that point Hannah had not written anything, though she was “the kid on the family vacations who had to be told to look at the Grand Canyon because I was reading a lot on the way.”)
Hannah and her mom decided to write a book in the time they had left together. “Being mother and daughter, we argued about what book to write,” she says. “I wanted to write horror, and she wanted to write historical romance.” Ultimately, her mom won.
The book that came from that, written after her mother’s death and when Hannah was bedridden with a difficult pregnancy, was 1991’s A Handful of Heaven. It is set in Alaska’s Yukon Territory. “I sold it when my son was two,” Hannah says. “When he was born, I realized that I just wanted to be home with him, and I thought, ‘If I can write a book, then I’ll be able to make a career of that.’ I’ve been doing this ever since.”
Over the years, she’s had what she describes as “a couple of big game changers.” After publishing a number of historical romances, she wrote On Mystic Lake, a tearjerker of a love story published in 1999, and her first book to hit the New York Times bestseller list. The next was 2008’s Firefly Lane, a story of female friendship spanning 30 years, which has been adapted by Netflix as a limited series starring Katherine Heigl. (The series is set to bow on February 3.) And then there was The Nightingale, which, once filming can begin again, will be a movie starring Elle and Dakota Fanning.
“Each [game-change came about] because I had gotten to a place that I wanted to try something new, and throw everything up in the air, and see what I could do in a different format,” Hannah says. “And every time, it’s a big risk. Because you never know what readers are going to respond to, and what they aren’t.” But books are as much a reflection of their authors as they are their readers, and what compels Hannah these days is investigating moments from the past that reflect the world today. She is interested in periods of history that can “teach us a lesson about how things happen and what we need to do along the way. And I think it’s really important not just to put women back into the stories but to also bring these stories to a new generation.”
Of course, Hannah couldn’t have predicted the stark relevance the book would have to our current time, amid a pandemic, a climate emergency, an immigration crisis, and economic insecurity. By May 2020, after numerous rounds of edits, the book was finished, and it was at that moment that Hannah and her editor realized the unexpected timeliness of the novel.
“All of a sudden you’re looking at the TV and people are in food lines and can’t pay their rent,” she says. “We were realizing that this isn’t a small thing we’re in.” Hannah, whose husband lost his best friend to Covid-19, was struck by the fact that so many people were in the same boat, grieving and unable to come together or mourn in the ways people traditionally do. “We are all separated from the people we love,” she says—including her son, who’s grown and now lives in Los Angeles. “I find myself shockingly thankful for Zoom calls.”
And this is also where historical novels are so helpful. We can find hope in stories tinged with pain from the past, especially when we’re living through new pain ourselves. “This pandemic is, as much as anything in my lifetime, something that has affected every single person,” Hannah says. “I think this is the Great Depression for our generation. This is the thing that we will look back and talk about. And we will study how we did well, and where we fell down, in the process of caring for each other.”
Hannah also believes there are bright notes—things that help us carry on, if we look for them. “America has been through hard times before,” she says. “And if we pull together and work hard, we can come through this as well. And we will not only survive, we will thrive.”
Jen Doll is the author of the YA novel Unclaimed Baggage (FSG) and the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest (Riverhead).