Hesse, Karen. 1997. OUT OF THE DUST. New York: Scholastic. First edition. ISBN 0-590-36080-9
OUT OF THE DUST tells one girl’s story of a poverty-stricken life on an Oklahoma farm through the 1920’s and 30’s. Told in free verse the language is cut down to essentials just as Billie Jo’s life was. The book will grab the reader from the first two stanzas where fourteen-year-old, Billie Jo, the book’s narrator and protagonist, describes her own birth.
Beginning: August 1920
As summer wheat came ripe,
so did I,
born at home, on the kitchen floor.
barefoot, bare bottomed over the swept boards,
because that’s where Daddy said it’d be best.
I came too fast for the doctor,
bawling as soon as Daddy wiped his hand around
inside my mouth.
To hear Ma tell it,
I hollered myself red the day I was born.
Red’s the color I’ve stayed ever since.
Billie Jo’s journal goes on to discuss the normal concerns of young teenagers, but all the experiences are colored by the dustbowl experience. For example, when her best friend moves away, she describes her memories, but also her envy that Livie is escaping:
Now Livie’s gone west,
out of the dust,
on her way to California,
where the wind takes a rest sometimes.
And I’m wondering what kind of friend I am,
wanting my feet on that road to another place,
instead of Livies’s.
The white space in the poem encourages the reader to pause and think about each phrase. What does it mean to live in dust? What does California represent to poor Oklahoma farmers? How would it be to live with constant dust-filled wind? What does friendship mean to the girls?
We also learn about Billie Jo’s problems and fun at school, her concern about the farm and her mother’s pregnancy, as well as her joy in playing the piano.
When I point my fingers at the keys,
springs straight out of me.
playing notes sharp as
telling stories while the
buttery rhythms back me up
on the left.
The rhythm of the words as well as their placement help us hear the driving beat of the music Billie Jo played.
Then personal tragedy strikes. First her baby brother dies, and then her mother is killed because of a kitchen fire. During that accident, Billie Jo’s hands are so badly burned that she can no longer play. In reaction, her father falls into angry drunken depression. The pace of the poems change as the tone of the story changes.
My father stares at me
while I sit across from him at the table,
while I wash dishes in the basin,
my back to him,
the picked and festered bits of my hands in agony.
He stares at me
as I empty the wash water at the roots
of Ma’s apple trees.
The short lines and their repititious nature increase the bleakness of the scene. Unsurprisingly, all of this leads Billie Jo to desperation. She runs away—hopping a freight train. She uses the poem, “Gone West” to describe the ride.
I am stiff and sore.
In two endless days on this train, I have
burned in the desert,
shivered in the mountains,
I have seen the
camps of the dust-bowl migrants
along the tracks.
Young adult readers will be pleased that Billie Jo finds peace in the resolution of the story. She returns home to find her father is returning to normalcy and ready to once again create a family. The journal continues until 1935 with the return of rain to the land and some movement to Billie Jo’s hand. This is not a happily-ever-ending resolution; but it is sufficiently upbeat to provide comfort for the young adult readers. The free-verse format makes the book both a faster read and a more sensory experience than the same story in a conventional novel format. The book will bring the Great Depression and the Oklahoma Dust Bowl alive to readers.