Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Out of the Dust billie jo cover picOut 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

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan

nick and norah book cover

This novel comes rumbling out of some torn up Manhattan tunnel like a queercore punk nightmare, full of profanity, revolt, degradation, and the sweetest young love you’ve ever tasted on some strange Jack Kerouac night full of piss and vinegar.

Much the way On the Road roared at the right side of the highway from America’s kick back against conformity in the 1950’s, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist assaults the reader from the first page and doesn’t stop jumping until literally the last word of the book, which is, appropriately: “Jump.”  Young adult authors Rachel Cohn and David Levithan trade chapters in this novel, with her writing as Norah and him writing as Nick.  That accounts for the distinctive voice of each character (written in the ever present YA Biblical tense of FIRST PERSON PRESENT).

The book begins with Nick on stage at some Manhattan club playing bass with his queercore punk band, The Fuck Offs. He’s the only straight guy in the group, comprised of high school seniors.  The drummer, Thom (with an H), is less than talented and waits for a solo that never comes in the two minute screaming slashes that they burn, and the lead singer, Dev, is a beautiful slut, ever on the make for his next guy.  Nick nearly loses it when his ex-girlfriend Tris comes smoking into the club with her newest guy because she is truly, eternally hot and he is still desperate for her.  After the set, he goes to the bar and when Tris approaches him, he turns to the girl next to him, who wears of all things, a flannel shirt in this den of trendy commercially run Ramones tee shirts, and says, “I know this is going to sound strange, but would you mind being my girlfriend for the next five minutes?” Norah answers his question by giving a deep, eye-opening kiss that begins a six hour trip for these two angst ridden teens that doesn’t stop until, well, like, you know, the end.

Alternately attracted and repulsed, Nick tries to deal with Tris strutting around with her new guy, while Norah, who is Jewish, tries to deal with her ex-boyfriend who has just returned from a kibbutz in Israel.  They are both POSITIVELY unhip and yet at the same time are the two COOLEST people in the novel.  Norah, it turns out, is the daughter of a lifelong A&R man and she grew up traveling the country, going to concerts, and listening to every kind of music there is and digging it all.  Right now, she is deeply, wholly, into punk and so, of course, is Nick, who himself is into all different kinds of music, even though right now he’s really into punk.  Although he doesn’t know who Norah is, she knows all about him because she’s an old friend of Tris and has listened to and admired the mixes he’s made and the songs he’s written.  They are both trying really hard to be people that they’re really not because they love this kind of music and nothing exhilarates either of them more than jumping into the mosh pit when Where’s Fluffy? plays their trashed out rejection of The Man.  As Norah sagely remarks: “The mosh pit never lies.”

Although there are things in book that made me seriously pause, look out the window, and wonder how it was possible to write something that sounded so trite and yet rang so true, I raced through the 183 pages in less than a day. The prose carries you forward as if you were just a passenger on their crazy train or a thrashing punk song, and after a while, you don’t really want to get off or see the song end.  Long sentences that riff like one of Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness poems run into even longer paragraphs that run into pages that occur inside one brain or the other and at the end you realize that only a few seconds have passed in the story and it only felt like a few seconds as these pages devoured you!

Most of the book is just laugh-out-loud funny, although there are some pages where you might develop a permanent little chuckle. Cohn and Levithan have such a grip on their writing, however, that this humor can change to heart-rending angst or unexpectedly profound observation within a few words.

The push and pull back and forth between Nick and Norah is a kind of song in itself as they feel their way through their anxieties, work out their past failures, and grope toward a relationship. They are, in some ways, metaphors for our fractured world and if they can work it out, maybe we can work it out.  This must be considered a break-through novel in the YA genre, not just for the language, but for the compression of time, the driving style, and the unique young voices that push it forward.

This is a compelling book that should be LOUD on YA radar.

Like it or not.

My review of the movie is located at Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

Stoner & Spaz by Ron Koertge

Stoner and Spaz Book CoverAlthough classified as a breakthrough novel in the Young Adult genre, Stoner & Spaz–like all good novels–can be read and enjoyed by anyone.

It’s a short book, very lean and very well-written.  Maybe my own experience with cutting a large novel down to size has colored my point of view, but I have grown to really appreciate storytelling that gets right to the heart of the subject.  The characters are bold, the Southern California landscape spare, and the theme explored relentlessly.

Told from the point of view of sixteen-year-old Ben Bancroft, a survivor of Cerebral Palsy, it relates his experiences with Colleen Minou, a stoner girl at his high school.  Ben is a true nerd, a cinephile who lives through his experiences with movies.  He has seen so many that he understands the form intimately.  He knows why tracking shots are used, how black and white enhances certain movies, why characters act the way they do, and he deeply wishes he could live his own life as if he was one of those powerful, charismatic characters.  But he doesn’t.  Instead, he feels the weight of that half of his body that is completely unresponsive.  He stays away from the other kids, lost in his own little world.

That changes one night at the Rialto Theater when Colleen asks to borrow a couple of dollars because they won’t change the hundred dollar bill in her hand.  To his surprise, she tracks him down in the theater and sits with him.  Although he’s mortified, he’s also a little turned on, especially when she falls asleep with her head on his shoulder.

Thus begins an unlikely relationship that turns Ben completely around–and opens him up to the possibilities of his own life.

There are several great things about the book.  One, obviously, is the interaction of two kids who are complete opposites, each discovering the other’s world and opening themselves to change.  But secondly, and most important, is Ben’s character arc.  For me, the best stories involve a character that must go through dramatic changes in order to realize his or her potential.  And the more barren the character at the beginning, the deeper and wider the potential for change.  By using an introverted character with Cerebral Palsy, Koertge begins in a pretty deep chasm.  To deflect potential darkness, he gives the character a quirky, smart, self-deprecating sense of humor.

The leanness of the book also works to advantage in that it could be a movie itself.  Think how some movies fail because a director is in love with long, tracking shots, mood shots, unnecessary character background, and long scenes.  Successful films are edited down to what matters–all of the unimportant stuff lays on the cutting room floor, rather than padding out a 90 minute film into a two hour bore.

Stoner & Spaz is a wonderful little novel, something that all writers should read and something that will entertain and enlighten every one who reads it.  Highly recommend!

The Collector by John Fowles

The CollectorIn his debut novel in 1963, John Fowles created a classic that will long endure as the best fiction kidnapping ever.  An entire genre has sprung up around the idea of men capturing young women, usually to torture or rape them, certainly keeping them prisoners over a long period of time.  Although the kidnapper usually brings in his own scars, the situation inevitably creates even deeper scars in the poor feminine victim.

Fowles, in the quintessential kidnapping story, disdains both torture and rape by creating a villain who goes far out of his way to ensure the comfort of his victim—and far from raping or torturing, he loves her so much that all he requires is her company.  In fact, the idea of physical intimacy is abhorrent to him.  What he doesn’t realize is that keeping her in a basement with no fresh air or sunshine, with no company, with no radio or television is itself a psychological torture.

The relationship between the abductor and the victim attains an amazing intimacy and poignancy in The Collector that is surprising and shocking, especially for 1963.  And when the victim decides to give the abductor what she thinks he wants—physical intimacy—it catapults the situation from something that was within her control (reasonably) into something far more dangerous that she ever anticipated.

The first part of the novel is told from the point of view of the abductor, Frederick Clegg.  By giving us the voice of this man who sounds oh-so-reasonable, Fowles puts us in the conductor’s chair and we see his loneliness, his inability to relate, his petty hatreds and distrust of society in tones so cool and controlled that we understand what he’s doing and why (not that we ever agree with it, but he does gain our sympathy somewhat, the poor fellow.)

The second part of the book is related in a diary that Miranda Grey, the victim, keeps under the mattress in her tiny cell in the basement of Clegg’s country home outside London.  This is the part of the book that digs deep into the soul.  We experience day after day Miranda’s fears and hopes, her delicate dance with Clegg to attempt escape, to keep her humanity in the face of what she must do to get out.  We see her gradually fall in love with the life that is now completely denied her and we understand her plans and schemes to save it.

Emotionally, the novel is a rollercoaster, a tour-de-force that is nearly impossible to put down.  After over 50 years, it still packs a gigantic punch that’s impossible to escape.  It’s a novel that should take its place as a classic.  A MUST-READ!