Out of the Dust
by Karen Hesse
Age: 10 +
Interests: poetry, history, American history, the Great Depression, farming, death and grief, music
Also by this author: Letters from Rifka, The Music of Dolphins, Witness
Billie Jo’s family are wheat farmers in Oklahoma, and the year is 1934. Her father doggedly keeps planting wheat but the dust storms keep destroying his crops. In the midst of their financial troubles, there is a terrible accident – a pail of kerosene is ignited and Billie Jo throws it out the door just as her mother is entering. Billie Jo burns her hands trying to help her mother, who is burned very badly. She and her unborn baby die soon after, and Billie Jo and her father struggle to continue. Isolated in their grief, they stop talking to one another altogether. Billie Jo’s only joy in life was playing the piano, but her hands are so damaged she can’t even do that anymore. All she wants is to get out of the dust, to leave her home for greener pastures. When she finally does run away she quickly realizes how much home and family mean to her. Upon her return her relationship with her father begins to mend, and a doctor encourages her to return to playing the piano. There’s a new woman in her father’s life, the wonderful and understanding Louise, and the dust storms finally cease, allowing them all a glimmer of hope for the future.
A very unusual novel, this story is told entirely in free-verse poems, and as bleak as the plot is, the unsentimental first person voice of Billie Jo keeps the tale from becoming too maudlin. It makes for interesting reading, and is a terrific introduction to long form free-verse storytelling. The book is beautifully written, though the accident and the description of her mother’s burned body could be harrowing for some. There is a fair amount of historical information about FDR and the relief loans that Billie Jo’s father takes out to plant more ill-fated wheat. As well, the description of the dust storms are vivid and affecting.
A General Note: I would recommend this read, though as I proceed through all these Newbery-winning novels I am struck by how depressing the majority of them are. I don’t know whether it reflects the general tone of YA fiction, or whether the Newbery selection committee has a particular preference for death-and-grieving novels. At any rate, I think if an ambitious reader simply set out to read only Newbery winners, they would benefit so much from the quality of the literature, but the subject matter could very well sap them of the will to live. Of particular concern are the precocious readers, reading above their age, who might find these books just too upsetting.