Reviewed by Bev Scott
Kristin Hannah has written a powerful historical novel with contemporary significance. Three members of the Martinelli family leave Texas during the Dust Bowl, which destroyed their farm and threatened their young son’s life. In search of a better life, they grab onto the California dream. Instead of the dream, they struggle to find any work to earn enough money to eat and to literally survive. Hannah paints a vivid picture of the emotional toll of judgement and narrow stereotypes as well as the cruel impact of practices which benefit the landowners and punish the desperate migrants.
Dust Bowl survival
But the story is not just about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl or the challenges of finding work and acceptance in California. Hannah engages us with a story of Elsa, who faces with daunting challenges. She has a forced marriage and feels the insecurity and lack of self-worth from rejection and isolation by her parents. Then, her husband painfully abandons her, and even her daughter rejects her due to misplaced anger and blame of Elsa. Yet, she finds comfort and security from her in-laws and the friends she makes in the California migrant camps. They accept and love her, despite all of their trying circumstances.
Elsa digs deep to find her own strength, persistence, self-reliance and sense of fairness that enables her to keep struggling. The system holds migrants like her in constant debt. However, she manages to hold her family together and even shares what little she has with friends who have less. Through the eyes of Elsa and her daughter, Loreda, we see the brutality of a system which benefits land owners and exploits the vulnerable, poor and desperate. The migrants wait and hang on with only threads of hope for a better future.
Lessons for our times
It is a painful reminder of reality for people who are struggling today. We are learning the generational impact of racism, poverty, injustice, and lack of health care. Hannah paints a vivid picture of how we may pass judgement and benefit from systems that exploit others. It’s easy to ignore the very humanity that can lift others up and support them. But when we provide support, others can find their own courage, persistence and opportunities for a better life.
This book is a powerful and intense reminder of our responsibility to our community, to support those around us. We can share our humanity and uniqueness and tear down systems that benefit the few and oppress the less fortunate. I highly recommend it.