Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse (1997, Scholastic Press) is billed as a Young Adult novel. Although it certainly contains the structure of a novel, it sure doesn’t feel like one. The reason for that is obvious and up-front: it is a collection of short, free verse poems in chronological order that collectively tell a coherent story. Presented in the current Young Adult standard of first person present, the poems carry an immediacy that most poetry doesn’t and that immediacy is in the story itself.
Set in the Oklahoma panhandle near a small town, Joyce City, it comes at you in the voice of twelve year old Billie Jo Kelby, the only child in a family that struggles to survive the great Dust Bowl in 1934 and 1935.
The voice is clear and each small poem reveals more of her to us as we move forward. Some of the poems are only a few lines and some of them go on for two or three pages, but every single one is focussed in the girl’s heart.
Part of that heart is rooted in the land. In 1934, the Panhandle was in its second year of drought. Wheat prices had fallen to the point where a farmer getting 25 cents a bushel was actually better off not planting any. The Great Depression was already nearing five years deep and showing little improvement. When Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the Presidency in 1933, he immediately implemented plans to feed the starving, give conservation jobs to those where were down and out, stabilize stock prices by buying–and in many cases, killing–cattle that were starving, and eventually buying up land to fallow, replanting the grass that held it together once upon a time. But by 1934, the unrestricted plowing of the Great Plains had created millions of acres of loose topsoil. With no moisture to help hold it down, the relentless prairie winds picked it up, circulated it in the sky and then dumped it back down on the sodbusters, sometimes for days on end. The dust was often finer than sifted flour, just constantly coming down, inhaled by cattle and people until it filled their lungs and stomachs and killed them. When farmers were actually able to get a little something growing, it would be eaten by rabbits or grasshoppers who grew abundantly in the absence of their natural preditors: birds, snakes, and coyotes. Rabbit drives were organized to kill the rabbits, which provided at least one source of food outside government rations. Seed sacks were saved and used to make clothing and some ranchers were so desperate that they harvested Russian thistle (tumbleweeds) to feed their cattle. But the dust and sand storms were the true menace, piling up dunes of sand and soil that made it almost impossible to farm, to drive from town to town, to walk to school. They filled the air with deadly particles and came relentlessly, sometimes for many days in a row, blackening the sky and creating midnight at noon.
Hesse does an excellent job of creating her story in the midst of this environmental catastrophe. Billie Jo struggles to understand her father, who doesn’t talk much, but loves her mother desperately. Her mother seems cold and hard, her few praises grudgingly given, probably because she envisioned more for herself than a dirt farm in the middle of nowhere. Billie Jo learned to play piano from her mother and she remarks more than once that her mother has a beautiful, lilting voice. Local musician Arley Wanderdale encourages Billie Jo to sit in with his band, the Black Mesa Boys at the Palace Hotel. She has a serious crush on their singer, Mad Dog Craddock, who is a few years older, but she always has to approach her mother carefully to get her permission. She plays with them whenever she can and picks up a few dimes that her mother sets aside for her.
Early in the book, her mother becomes pregnant and they all live in anticipation of a child in their household, but several compounded mistakes change their lives forever. Her father leaves a bucket of kerosene sitting near the stove and her mother, thinking it is water, begins to pour it into a pot to make coffee. The heat of the stove ignites it and her mother runs outside to call her father. Thinking it will burn the house down, Billie Jo grabs it and throws it out the door–just as her mother is turning to go back inside. The effect is devastating. Her mother suffers burns over most of her body and Billie Jo herself suffers terrible burns on her hands. Her mother dies giving birth to her baby brother, who dies shortly afterward.
It seems to Billie Jo that she receives most of the blame, for throwing the pain, even though it was her father who should never have the kerosene anywhere near the stove. Blame is almost inconsequential. Her father retreats into silence and Billie Jo suffers with her burned hands, unable to play the piano anymore.
To see how they cope with these trials, you will need to read the book, because I’m not going to give away any more information.
It is a novel. The way the poems are structured, the way the story unfolds, the arc of the characters, and the internal growth of Billie Jo–all this tells me that this is not only a novel, but a very good novel.
If the purpose of a novel is bring forth emotion in the reader, Out of the Dust is extremely successful. Karen Hesse pulls us resolutely into Billie Jo’s world, brings us to deeply care about her character, and develops a coherent, beautifully written story. The world feels real, but that world is only a backdrop for a landscape that exists inside a human being, coping with her own issues, trying to find herself in a moonscape that refuses to bring forth anything green. That Hesse is able to find that wellspring inside the girl, to tap it, and bring it forth as if it were a gentle, soaking rain, is an admirable feat of writing!
A beautiful book. I highly recommend it, not only for Young Adult readers, but for everyone.
A Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
A Booklist Editor’s Choice