Out of the Dust

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by Hesse, Karen. (Scholastic, 1997 ISBN 0590360809. Order Info.) Novel. Grades 5+.

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Review

cover art

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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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • Billy Jo says that her mother made herself over to fit her father. How did she do that? What sacrifices, unmentioned in the book, did she probably make?

  • What about her father? Did he make himself over to fit her mother? Why not? Why doesn't he help Billie Jo during those awful days?

  • Do you think Billie Jo's inability to play the piano after the fire was psychological or physical?

  • What do you think caused Billy Jo to turn back to the farm? Was it something the man in the freight train said?

  • Billie Jo says that the man in the freight train and her Ma were like tumbleweeds but her father is not. What comparisons would you make to those personalities? What is Billie Jo? A tumbleweed?

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Activities

  • Look for and view the classic documentary film "The Plow that Broke the Plains" by Pare Lorenz that was made in 1936 and is still available. Footage of a dust storm is particularly good in that film. You can find information about it at http://history.acusd.edu/gen/filmnotes/plow.html.

  • Woodie Guthrie wrote and recorded several songs from that era and place. His CD called "Dust Bowl Ballads" is available (Order Info.). Find it, play it and join in.

  • What about the science of the Dust Bowl? What caused it? Was it bad farming, freak weather, some of both and more? Can it happen again?

  • Consult almanacs and the web for information about droughts (see web site below). Get someone from the state university to talk about farming then and now.

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Related Books

  • Cover ArtMatt Phelan's The Storm in the Barn. (2009, Candlewick. ISBN 9780763636180. Order Info.) Graphic Novel. 208 pages. Gr 3-10.
    Here's an outstanding example of a graphic novel which excels at illustrating an historical phenomenon. Set in the American Heartland during the Dust Bowl of the 1930's this is the story of one eleven year old boy's incredible experiences of the times even while it ventures into the realms of fairy tales and tall tales. Best used after students have already had some exposure to information on the Dust Bowl.

  • cover artDon't forget Grapes of Wrath (Order Info) both as a film and as a book for kids in middle school grades. It's not hard to read and nobody said it better than Steinbeck.
  • Ann Turner's Dust for Dinner illustrated by Robert Barrett (HarperCollins, 1995 ISBN 0060233761. Order Info.) is an easy-to-read book in which we watch a family fall victim to the Dust Bowl. Set your less capable readers in that direction.

  • David Booth's The Dust Bowl with illustrations by Karen Reczuch (Kids Can Press, 1997 ISBN 1550742957. Order Info.) is a picture book with a father so discouraged by current bad times on the farm that he wants to walk away but grandpa remembers the Dust Bowl. He stuck it out through that and his memories remind them all that hard times do end, eventually.
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