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Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, 227 pp, RL 5


Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse's 1998 Newbery award winning book, is narrated in verse by fourteen-year old Billie Jo Kelby. From the Winter of 1934 to Autumn 1935, Hesse follows a painful and difficult time in the narrator's life that mirrors the hardship, destruction and decimation brought on by the worst ecological disaster in American history. Although beautifully written, Billie Jo's personal losses and the brutal, grinding facts of life in the Dust Bowl are almost too much to grasp. Two things I have found myself wondering as I read verse novels is, "Why tell this story in the form of poetry?" and, "Why do most verse novels seem to tell such sad stories?" When I read a verse novel I feel like I am looking at a photo album and each poem inside is a snapshot capturing a moment in time. Distilling a person's story down to 50 or 75 moments makes it more intense and more vivid for the reader, perhaps even easier to process when the story is filled with so much loss and sadness, making this an ideal way to tell the story of a difficult time. And, because these are verse novels written for children there is always hope and progress that emerges from the tragedies. In The Aleutian Sparrow Hesse's narrator, Vera, tells the story of her people and their experience in an internment in a camp during WWII. Despite the fact the they are Americans, they are treated worse than some German prisoners of war and discriminated against by the people of Ketchikan, their unwanted new home. But Vera returns to the Aleutian Island, many of her tribe dead, carrying the stories of her people with her and a determination to build up her tribe again despite the devastation the war and soldiers both Japanese and American, have done to the islands.

In Out of the Dust, Billie Jo and her family suffer at the hands of nature and their own personal failures. Over and over in poem after poem, Billie Jo talks about the dust that is everywhere. She describes the dust that creeps through every opening in the house, the dust that covers their plates and their food, the dust that covers them while they sleep. Hesse writes of the dust storms that rip roofs off houses, cause car accidents, and kill livestock. And the grit and grime that is wiped out of eyes, blown out of noses and coughed out of lungs when it is not choking a person to death with dust pneumonia. On top of all this, a terrible accident causes the deaths of Billie Jo's mother and infant brother, leaving her with hands that are raw, red and scarred. Billie Jo had been hoping to make her way out of the dust with her piano playing, taught to her by her mother, but this seems impossible, especially since her father retreats into himself and barely speaks to Billie Jo.

In the midst of this loss, Billie Jo's feelings of defeat are sometimes buoyed by small events around her. In the poem "Night Bloomer," she talks of walking miles in the middle of the night to see her neighbor's cereus plant produce its annual bloom, wondering how "can such a flower/ find a way to bloom in this drought,/ in this wind." In the poem "Art Exhibit" Billie Jo describes an art show that is also a fund raiser for the library, filled with watercolors, pastels, charcoals and oil paintings. She visits it three times, and in the final stanza of the poem says,

But now the exhibit is gone, 
the paintings
stored away in spare rooms
or locked up
where no one can see them.
I feel such a hunger
to see such things.
And such an anger
because I can't.


December 1934

Billie Jo also struggles with the loss of the use of her hands. Her piano playing afforded her the chance to perform with a local group every once in a while, earning dimes that her mother saved to send her to college. The group continues to book shows and the leader, Arley Wanderdale, also Billie Jo's piano teacher, encourages her to practice again. Returning to the piano brings up memories of her mother and all she has lost as well as the blistered, peeling, painful state of her hands.

In the poem "Out of the Dust" that appears in the section "Spring of 1935," Billie Jo runs away from home. Unable to bear the silence of her father and the hopelessness of her hands, she takes her college fund and a few biscuits and hops a train. After a few days on the train and an encounter with a man who has left his wife and children hoping to find work comes the poem "Homeward Bound."

Getting away,
it wasn't any better.
Just different.
And lonely.
Lonelier than the wind.
Emptier than the sky.
More silent than the dust,
piled in drifts between me
and my
father.

Billie Jo's return to Joyce City marks a change in fortunes, the weather and Billie Jo's perspective. In one of the last poems in the book, "Thanksgiving," Billie Jo lists all of the things she is thankful for, ending with,

The poppies set to
bloom on Ma and Franklin's grave,
the morning with the whole day waiting,
full of promise,
the night
of quiet, of no expectations, of rest.
And the certainty of home, the one I live in,
and the one
that lives in me.


November 1935

Works of historical fiction for young readers tend to portray hardships and suffering and this can be difficult for some children, even though many love this genre.The tragedy that takes the lives of Billie Jo's mother and infant brother was very difficult for me to read and I had to put the book down for a few days, even though I had read Out of the Dust once before many years ago and knew what was coming. I think, though, being an adult and mother, I am much more sensitive to situations like this. Kids will probably take these events in stride, as well as the hardships that the dust brought on. I think that the historical aspects and events of the novel are fascinating and worth reading about, making Out of the Dust a unique and important book.

For more excellent books for children about the dust storm, please be sure to read Jessica Bruder's article Blowin' in the Wind from the New York Times Book Review, November 5, 2009. She reviews three children's books on the subject including Albert Marrin's Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl, which she says "feels like a museum in the form of a book," in the best possible way. Of Martin W Sandler's Dust Bowl Through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Helped Remedy a National Disaster, she says that Sandler presents the "two intersecting historical arcs, the crisis of the Dust Bowl and the rise of documentary photography." The final book she reviews is Matt Phelan's amazing graphic novel,  The Storm in the Barn. Click the title for my review.


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