I’ve had Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse for a year or two, just sitting on the shelf, unread. I never was in the mood for what I assumed the story would be. I figured it would be another one of those, “Poor Okie Kid” books, suffering her way through poverty, hard times, the Great Depression, and possibly a tragedy or two before, hopefully, coming to a good place in life, or possibly, ending in disaster, like many books who mess with your emotions. And in some ways, that’s what this book is—but not.
One disconcerting detail you’ll notice about this book is that, while it is a novel, it is not in a strict novel format. Out of the Dust is written in free-verse poems, each one advancing the storyline, each one with a date at the bottom to help the reader keep track of the passage of time, covering about two years of 14 yr old Billie Jo’s life. Billie Jo tells the story in her own words, in a spare, sometimes stark, honest, yet elegant and eloquent way that is fully believable as a young teen’s voice. In a way, this style kept me from skimming or rushing through less interesting sections in way which I am used to doing in many novels. As you follow the story, there aren’t clouds of words to bathe your mind in; each word is important, and you want to read each word, understanding her life.
Billie Jo is a farmer’s daughter; he is trying to raise wheat in
during the mid 1930’s, the time of the Dust Bowl. Billie Jo has a lot to think
about, her parents becoming increasingly tense because of the drought, her baby
brother about to be born, boys, and her passion for music that lifts her and
gives her hope for a future out of the dust.
When some really bad things happen that threaten everything, even her relationships, then you get to the part where you can’t put the book down. As the days pass, and she makes choices, Billie Jo begins to understand her own heart and realize her own strength, leading to an ending that is not pat or necessarily anticipated.
Out of the Dust has won many awards, and I can see why. It is obviously a book that elementary and middle schools would require their students to read, to be inspired by a heroine who learns about courage, truth and sorrow, and to gain understanding about an era in our nation’s past.
I picked this book up at a Goodwill for under about a dollar.