The year is 1921, and Elsa Wolcott is set to celebrate her 25th birthday. Considered sickly after surviving a childhood illness, she has been neglected by her family as her siblings thrive. Out wandering around town she sees a bolt of beautiful red fabric in a shoppe – impulsively she purchases the material, and creates herself a beautiful dress. Further defying her parents, she dons the dress and heads out for a night of fun – not knowing that decisions she makes this night will change her future forever.
Flash forward to 1934, where Elsa lives with her husband Rafe, his parents and two children on a farm. Residing in the panhandle of Texas, they are barely surviving the Great Depression and a drought that has lasted a couple of years, creating what is known in present day as the Dust Bowl period. As she sees her small town dying before her eyes with crops that can’t grow, and families and farm animals that go hungry, she works twice as hard to keep her small family safe. Her husband, haunted by what his life has become, leaves abruptly one night, taking a train out of town As conditions worsen, and the dust storms wreak havoc, more and more families abandon farms in hopes of work and relief in California, and soon Elsa and her children decide to make the journey as well.
Leaving Rafe’s parents to tend the farm, Elsa takes the family truck, her children, and belongings as they make their way out to California. Arriving to beautiful scenery and the hopes of jobs and financial security, they soon learn that their type – ‘Okies’ – aren’t welcome, and soon Elsa finds herself in the fields picking cotton, and increasingly in debt as she tries to make ends meet. There is unrest in the land as people workers rebel, pitting landowners against their employees, and the words of ‘union’ and ‘strike’ are soon whispered, creating anger and tension amongst the region, with Elsa finding herself in a very difficult position…
As is anything written by Kristin Hannah, the story is beautifully written, yet contained a history lesson and a brief, yet painful glimpse into the lives of Americans in the 1930’s. As Elsa and her family endured, and endured again, I kept waiting for the happy ending – I cannot imagine surviving the things that they did, possessing the sheer force of will that made Elsa’s spirit so indomitable – a trait her children carried as well. But, given the nature of the story and the time period, it was an emotionally draining read when we, as a world, are also faced with such uncertainty in our present, as well.
I received this book as an Advance Reader Copy from St. Martins Press & Netgalley, in exchange for an objective review.