Reading historical fiction can provides ideas on how to add historical context to our work. Researching the world of our ancestors allows us to write with more authenticity when telling their stories. Kristen Hannah’s recent novel, The Four Winds, takes us on a journey to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in Texas and the hardships “Okies” encountered when fleeing the unforgiving land for California. My ancestors followed this same migration in the 1930s, so I read the book with interest.
Kristin Hannah gives us the character of Elsa Wolcott Martinelli to follow from Texas to California. Through Elsa’s eyes, we experience the hardships of drought, dust storms, extreme poverty, hunger, and more. Kristen writes:
Although my novel focuses on ficitonal characters, Elsa Martinelli is representative of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who went west in the 1930s in search of a better life. Many of them, like the pioneers who went west one hundred years before them, brought nothing more than a will to survive and a hope for a better future. Their strength and courage were remarkable. 1
My dad encountered the Dust Bowl as a child and talked of the dust storms – how his mother would cover the food with sheets, and they’d breathe through wet handkerchiefs. I wrote his story as part of my Adventures of Cowboy Bob series and subtitled it Dust Storm. Living through this era was much different for the adults than for my father, a six-year-old child. I’d like to write biographies of my grandparents and great-grandparents from their perspectives and to do so, I need to research the time and place.
Preparing to write a biography involves discovering details that add color and interest to the story. My dad described their trip to California as just like that described in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. You piled everything you owned into the back of the truck and camped along the road. But what exactly was that road trip like? Where would they have stopped? What dangers did they encounter? I have so many questions that will never be answered because no one kept a detailed diary of the trip. However, I can read other firsthand accounts to gain understanding.
Besides The Four Winds, Kristen Hannah hosts a list of recommended reading on her website. I’m looking forward to researching this era further with these resources and eventually tackling those biographies.
Whether or not you have ancestors who endured the Dust Bowl, you’ll learn about this important era in United States history by reading The Four Winds.
Best of luck in all your genealogical writing!