Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, 1997, Book Review

I’ve been slowly picking away at the list of Newbery winners. The medal is a sign of skill and quality, the best book of the year, and usually I enjoy them. But not always.

I didn’t care for Out of the Dust simply because it doesn’t follow a traditional story format; it’s a collection of free verse poems. I didn’t realize this when I purchased it for my Kindle when I was loading it up for my hospital stay. When I dove in, I was a little disappointed. It makes the text quite short, yet Ms. Hesse is able to create the character of fourteen-year-old Billie Jo and successfully illustrate the trials and joys of the Dustbowl years in 1934 and 1935 Oklahoma. There is a depth and beauty to the story that eventually sucked me in, and I’m always a sucker for history.

Since I accidentally threw away all my reading notes, I was jogging through some review sites to help me remember the plot. I came across this wonderfully written review on Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site. Just this once, I’m going to use someone else’s synopsis in place of my own:

It’s 1934 and life is already tough and it’s about to get worse. Billie Jo, her mother and father are struggling on through hard financial times on the farm. Her father doesn’t say much but we know he loves his family and that he is a man who feels a strong connection to the soil. Her mother comes from a more refined background. Billie Jo says she’s “made herself over to fit my father”. Her mother plays the piano beautifully and, when she plays those elegant pieces, Billie Jo’s father stands in the doorway and watches her with something in his eyes Billie Jo seldom sees. Billie Jo plays, too. Her music makes her mother wince but she’s making a name for herself with the kids at school intrigued by her wild and exuberant music. Billie Jo fully intends to ride that music out of the dust.

Billie Jo’s mother is pregnant and they’re all looking forward to the baby’s arrival. Before the baby arrives, however, the dust does. The fierce dust storms and their aftermath drive many of their neighbors off. They’re heading to California where things are bound to be better. Billie Jo’s father will hear none of that. He has lived through hard times before and he says they’re staying.

The climax is the tragedy. Her father leaves a pail of kerosene by the stove (we never learn why) and her mother, thinking it to be water, spills it on the stove when making tea. The flames send her mother out the door screaming for her father and Billie Jo grabs the pail and throws the remaining kerosene out the front door just as her mother is rushing back inside. Immediately the flames engulf her mother fatally wounding her and the baby. They also burn and scar Billie Jo’s hands so that playing the piano becomes impossible.

Billie Jo’s already remote father becomes unreachable after the death of his wife and baby. Billy Jo fears that they’re both turning into the dust that has covered everything. After trying to carry on without support, she runs away only to discover that her future lies back home.

I’d recommend Out Of The Dust readers 10 and up.

4 thoughts on “Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, 1997, Book Review

    1. It was sad, and not my favorite story. But there is definitely a strength of character that I admired.

      Ironically, I just read a very similar account of a fatal fuel oil burn in the research I’ve been doing for a new HF YA title. A bucket of water was thrown on the poor victim, which made it spread. Dangerous times.

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