Hannah, 60, lives with her husband; her son is now grown. Gone are the days when she had to squeeze in bursts of writing around naps and school hours. She works from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. most days, writing drafts in longhand on yellow legal pads. “I can write in my backyard, by the fire, on the beach, on an airplane,” Hannah said. “It helps to be disciplined, but I also believe creativity follows discipline.”
Her 24th book, “The Four Winds,” which comes out on Tuesday, seems eerily prescient in 2021, with its Depression-era tale of blighted land, xenophobia, fear of contagion — and determination to join forces and rebuild. Its message is galvanizing and hopeful: We are a nation of scrappy survivors. We’ve been in dire straits before; we will be again. Hold your people close. Her publisher, St. Martin’s Press, is planning an initial printing of 1 million copies.
“I wanted to tell a quintessentially American story,” Hannah said. “The Dust Bowl was the greatest ecological disaster in American history and that, combined with the partisan divide of the Great Depression, really spoke to me.”
The protagonist of “The Four Winds” is Elsa Martinelli, a single mother of two who, in 1935, leaves a parched family farm in Lonesome Tree, Texas, for California. She is unmoved by brochures promising milk and honey in the “Land of Opportunity.” She needs steady work and fresh air for her son, who is recovering from “dust pneumonia,” a then-common ailment on the Great Plains. (Readers who feel inconvenienced by cloth masks may feel differently after spending time with characters who wear gas masks in their homes.)
In the San Joaquin Valley, the Martinellis trade one set of terrible circumstances for another. Work is scarce. Locals are cruelly suspicious of newcomers, who they believe carry disease. Nobody will rent to “Okies,” as migrants were known — regardless of whether they were from Oklahoma — so the family settles into a squalid camp on the banks of an irrigation ditch.
How Elsa claws her way out is the crux of “The Four Winds.” Friendship is a lifeline, as it is for many women in Hannah’s books, including the pair in “Firefly Lane.” On Wednesday, Netflix begins streaming its television adaptation of that book, starring Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke.