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

Survival in the Storm by Katelan Janke

 

The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards

This Dear America novel of a farm family in Dalhart, Texas in 1935, written by fifteen year old Katlan Janke is presented in the form of a child’s diary.

Janke - Survival in the Storm Book CoverGrace Edwards receives her diary on Saturday, February 16, 1935 as a gift from her friend Helen for her twelfth birthday. She makes her first entry the following day sitting alone in the hayloft. We learn that her father is a farmer, that they have their own spread just outside of Dalhart, Texas, and that besides her mother, she also has a little sister, Ruth, who is seven years old.  Her parents gave her the book Anne of Green Gables for her birthday and Ruth gave her a hand-made bookmark.

The wind howls relentlessly because this family lives at the southern edge of No Man’s Land, what later was called The Dust Bowl. Compared to other families, the Edwards are actually doing reasonably well. They aren’t wealthy, like the McCalls, whose daughter Sadie is always lording it over the other kids in the one room schoolhouse, nor dirt poor like the Walkers, whose daughter is Helen, but they scratch along without government aid.  Somehow, they usually manage get enough out of their garden to can vegetables for the winter and her father usually gets just enough wheat out of the dust-blown fields to make do.  They own two cows, so the kids actually get fresh milk most of the time.

But they don’t have money for the picture show and the girls and their Mama have to sew new dresses from seed bags. When Daddy goes to buy seed, typically the family goes along so they can make sure they get matching bags for the new clothing.  They attend Sunday school and church on most Sundays when the wind isn’t blowing too hard and they put on competitive plays when school shuts down before summer.

This is an especially bad year as there are many dust storms that blow through, gigantic black clouds that roll over the land dropping fine, dry topsoil that has been picked up from the drought-stricken prairie farms. Many times these storms go on for hours, turning the land midnight black and accumulating in the lungs of people and their animals. Dust pneumonia is a common illness.  Cattle die from inhalation.

Grace’s world is torn apart when the Walkers reach the end of the line and head out for California. Losing her best friend is a big blow to Grace and she struggles to comprehend and deal with the loss, but there are bigger problems ahead. Black Sunday occurs on April 14, 1935.  A dust storm rising 10,000 feet high and two hundred miles wide descends across No Man’s Land. As the family prepares the house by wetting and hanging up sheets across windows and doors to catch the dust, Ruth is sent out to get the rest of the whites off the line.  Grace looks for her and sees that she is missing, so she sets out looking for her.  Ruth has chased a blowing dish towel.  Separated from their family as the storm approaches, the two girls take shelter in the abandoned Walker house.  Holding cloth over their faces, they hunker down and try to keep breathing as the storm howls around them.

The book is very well written, especially for a fifteen year old writer. Janke grew up in Dalhart and had local oral sources for original stories, as well as the Dalhart museum for research, including all of the local newspapers of the time.  Her re-creation of 1935 is completely believable, not just in the small details of household life, but in her understanding of the weather, the small local society, clothing, farm animals and so forth.  Neither Grace, nor any of her family or friends rings false.

There are indeed, many moments of the book that are quite moving and Janke must be accorded a great deal of success in her efforts. I loved the book from beginning to end.  If I might find any area of complaint, it’s that the great physical pain that these people suffered does not seem quite visceral enough.  It is a small complain indeed in a largely successful novel for young adults.

I highly recommend this book, not just for young adults, but for families and general readership. It well-written, moving, and a terrific depiction of The Dust Bowl.