by Hesse, Karen. (Scholastic, 1997 ISBN 0590360809. Order Info.) Novel. Grades 5+.
Out of the Dust is written in free verse and intended for kids in about fifth grade and up. This format gives a sparity to the text, which makes it a fairly quick read, but the novel has great depth and a strong sense of time and place. Its setting is Oklahoma during the thirties and so we know immediately that the title dust, at least some of it, is from the Dust Bowl.
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.
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