The joy of historical fiction is that what passes for leisure has an unintended educational side effect. The latest historical novel I read and am very excited about is The Women, by Kristin Hannah. Unfortunately, the book about a nurse in the Vietnam War, is not published until February, and it would be cruel to get you rushing to the library or the bookshop only to find it not available yet. However, there will be plenty other books by Kristin Hannah on the shelves with The Nightingale as one of her best-known historical novels. Most of her books feature strong, resilient women who must find the strength to survive.
My favourite Kristin Hannah book (not counting The Women) is The Four Winds, a historical novel set in Texas in 1934. This book gives a female perspective to John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath when the dust bowl ravages Texas, and thousands are out of work. Crops are failing, animals are dying, and people are facing hardships, illness, and poverty. Hundreds of thousands of people left their homes and moved to California to look for a better life. Instead of finding a better life they faced horrible living conditions, prejudice, and discrimination.
This is the background to Kristin Hannah’s fictional story told from the perspective of Elsa Martinelli, a farmer and mother who must choose between staying with the farm, hoping for better times, or joining the exodus of people because the dust may kill her son. With Elsa we live through the dust storms, travel on the dangerous roads to California and struggle to keep the children fed and safe. I googled some of the pictures of this time and Kristin Hannah’s descriptions are accurate and breathe life into the two-dimensional photos.
Kristin Hannah did not just bring to life a story from the past but shows us that the big story of a large groups of refugees or migrants is made up from a multitude of tragic stories of individuals. It’s the individual stories that are harder to ignore and stay with you the longest.