The Four Winds Summary

The Four Winds is a 2021 novel about the Martinelli family, who migrate from Texas to California during the Dust Bowl.

  • After being abandoned by her husband, Elsa Martinelli leaves the family farm with her two children, Loreda and Ant, and travels to California to escape the dust storms.
  • There, the Martinellis and their fellow migrants are forced to contend with poverty, prejudice, and exploitation as they pick fruit and cotton to survive.
  • Elsa begins a relationship with Jack Valen, a labor organizer for the Workers Alliance, and ultimately gives her life to the cause of migrant workers’ rights.

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Last Updated on June 10, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1180

Elsa Wolcott is a twenty-five-year-old spinster who has spent most of her life inside due to a bout of illness she suffered as a child. Her family does not support her goal of attending college, and she has been deemed too unattractive to marry. One night, she decides that she is tired of living a cloistered life and disobeys her family by going out in a scandalous red dress. She meets a young Italian immigrant named Rafaello “Rafe” Martinelli, and the two connect over their sharted dissatisfaction with life.

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Elsa continues her affair with Rafe in spite of the fact that he is both engaged and due to leave for college soon. One day, her mother discovers that Elsa is pregnant. Elsa’s father drives her to the Martinellis’ farm and tells them that Rafe must marry Elsa in order to preserve the family’s reputation. He then leaves Elsa there, effectively abandoning her.

Twelve years later, Elsa is a mother of two. She has bonded with her mother- and father-in-law, Rosabla “Rose” and Anthony “Tony” Martinelli, and overcome her frailty in order to become a hardworking farm wife. Her relationship with Rafe and her twelve-year-old daughter, Loreda, is strained, but she is nonetheless content with her life. However, the ongoing drought in the Great Plains has made growing crops impossible, and the Martinelli family must carefully ration their supplies.

Rafe and Loreda are discontented with life on the increasingly inhospitable farm and want to go to California, “the land of milk and honey.” However, Elsa, Tony, and Rose are attached to the land and refuse to leave, even as many of their neighbors begin making the arduous journey west. One day, Rafe packs up and leaves. The entire family is distraught, but especially Loreda, who feels betrayed that he left her behind. Loreda blames her mother and tries to run after Rafe, but she soon realizes she has no idea where he has gone.

In the aftermath of Rafe’s departure, the weather gradually worsens. After a few brief days of rain foster a sense of hope, the Martinellis are crushed when the scorching heat returns. Anthony “Ant” Martinelli, Elsa’s young son, contracts dust pneumonia and must be taken to the hospital. Elsa finally resolves to leave the farm after the doctor tells her that she needs to take her children away from the toxic dust storms.

The family makes preparations to leave, selling their livestock to the government and packing what belongings they can. After a particularly bad storm, Elsa decides that they cannot wait until the designated day and says that they must leave right now. Rose and Tony support her decision but inform her that they will not be going with her and the children. They will stay with their land and work with the newly formed government commission in the hopes that their crops will grow again. A distraught Elsa bids them farewell, and she and her children leave for California with the family’s old truck and what they can only hope is enough money for gas.

The journey to California is dangerous and stressful, and Elsa realizes that poverty has made people desperate. However, the Martinellis finally arrive in California. They are briefly overcome with happiness, but that is quickly quashed when they discover that migrants from the Great Plains, derogatorily called “Okies,” are discriminated against. Unable to find anywhere that will rent to them, they end up in a squatter’s camp. Elsa befriends their new neighbors, the Deweys, and hopes to find work soon.

Work proves hard to come by, and wages are low. The children are bullied at school for being “Okies.” However, cotton picking season allows them to save up a good deal of money, which Elsa hopes will last through the winter, when fewer jobs are available. 

Following a fight with her mother, Loreda runs away and meets a labor organizer named Jack Valen. Loreda is inspired by his ideals, but Jack tells her to go back to her family. Loreda shares a tearful reunion with her mother, who warns her to avoid discussing unions, since their income is dependent on the wealthy farmers. 

The winter proves harsh, and the migrant encampment is struck by a flash flood. Jack leads a group of volunteers who do what they can to help, and Elsa is able to save her truck. The rest of the Martinellis’ belongings and savings are lost. Jack urges Elsa to join him, declaring that people will listen to her. Elsa declines, saying that she needs to provide for her family. Jack understands and helps the Martinellis secure a spot in a coveted encampment on the Welty farm, which has electricity.

Life at the Welty farm seems wonderful, as residents can purchase goods on credit that they will repay with labor during cotton season. However, Elsa soon realizes that the prices at the camp store are inflated, and the attendant refuses to let her pay off her debt with cash. Conditions only worsen as cotton season arrives, and Mr. Welty cuts wages after hearing that the labor organizers are attempting to rally the workers.

Elsa steadfastly refuses to engage with the labor organizers, angrily rebuffing Loreda, who has been reading books on communism from the library. However, everything changes after her friend Jean Dewey dies of typhoid in the squalid ditch encampment. Elsa is distraught and realizes that the prejudice of the townspeople and the greed of the farm owners is keeping the migrant workers in cruel and impossible-to-escape circumstances. She agrees to help Jack organize a labor strike at the Welty farm, and the two begin a romantic relationship.

On the day of the strike, Elsa is the first one to walk into the fields and sit down. The others follow suit, and the first day is successful. The next day, Welty shows up with armed guards, and vigilante gunmen provide additional support. Nearly a thousand migrant workers have joined the cause, but most are too intimidated to stand against Welty’s armada. When Jack is beaten up by the vigilantes, Elsa picks up his megaphone and delivers an impassioned speech encouraging the assembled crowd to remember their pride as Americans. She shames Welty and his ilk for treating honest, hardworking people as expendable outsiders. As the crowd responds to her words, Elsa is shot in the abdomen.

Jack, Loreda, and Ant rush Elsa to the hospital, but it is too late. She wakes up in time to say goodbye to her loved ones and tells Loreda to “be brave.” Loreda insists that they take her mother’s body back to Texas. In order to obtain the money for the trip, she dons a disguise and robs the Welty store at gunpoint. The group then drives to Texas and buries Elsa in the Martinelli family plot.

Several years later, an eighteen-year-old Loreda visits her mother’s grave. She is set to begin college in California soon, but she vows to always remember her mother’s “warrior” spirit as she carries their mutual dream forward.

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