Karen Hesse

Out of the Dust

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Out of the Dust Summary

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Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, tells the story of surviving the Great Depression through first-person, free verse poems. A free verse poem is one that doesn’t adhere to any specific rhyme scheme or meter. Meter, in poetry, describes both the number of syllables in a line and the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Published in 1997, Out of the Dust is a work of historical fiction that takes place over the course of two years, from the winter of 1934 to the autumn of 1935, and is so titled because many families were forced to try to survive in what became known as the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl earned its name because a severe drought hit the farmlands of the middle of the United States just as the Depression took hold. The area was subject to huge dust storms, and families had difficulty raising crops.

The main character in Out of the Dust is a girl named Billie Jo. At the start of the story, she’s only thirteen years old, and decides to leave the barren Dust Bowl, only to regret it. She realizes how important her family is, and how crucial their connection to their land is. The story takes place near Joyce City, Oklahoma, which is part of the state’s panhandle. This area suffered the brunt of the dust storms, as well as tornadoes. Her father, a wheat farmer, holds onto faith that rains will come, but all that comes is more dust.

Billie Jo’s struggles are many over the two years covered in the book. She anticipates the birth of her baby brother, but he dies before she can ever meet him. Her mother dies in her childbirth efforts as well. Both Billie Jo and her mother are burned in a fire. Billie Jo’s decision to leave her family’s land is spawned by these tragedies and by the realization that by staying, she is consigning herself to more horrors. People around her are dying, being mutilated, and going insane because they have no other options in the economic and environmental climate that is the Dust Bowl during the Depression.

When she leaves, Billie Jo rides a train as a hitchhiker. A homeless man tells her about his family and shows her a picture. She falls asleep and, when she wakes, discovers that he’s stolen all of her biscuits. He has left the photograph of his family behind, and it makes her long to return to her father. Billie Jo does just that, and convinces him to see a doctor because the spots on his face remind her of those on her grandfather’s—whose spots turned out to be skin cancer. Her father, meanwhile, has been living with a woman named Louise, whom Billie Jo likes. At the end of the story, her father is happy and married to Louise, and Billie Jo feels hopeful for the future.

The book presents many themes; among the most prominent is death. Not just death of people, though the novel features many human deaths, caused by everything from dust inhalation during storms to depression and starvation. Crops and animals die, too. Even more pervasive is the death of hope. So many families are forced to give up hope, even after clinging to it for so long. Physical and emotional pain are also carried throughout the book, and become even more poignant following the fire that injures both Billie Jo and her mother. Abandonment is another important theme in Out of the Dust. On the larger scale, families are forced to abandon their homes. On a more personal level, after the fire, Billie Jo gives up playing the piano, despite having been a virtuoso at the instrument.

The fire—which damages her hands to the point that she decides to abandon the piano—is a crucial turning point in Out of the Dust. This book is what’s known as a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story. When Billie Joe decides not to play any longer, she must mourn that loss. It is only through the healing of her hands that she is reborn; that transformation includes her growing up. She sheds the ideals and dreams of her childhood and sees the world through an adult’s eyes.

Karen Hesse’s awards for Out of the Dust include the Newbery Award and the Scott O’Dell Award. She has also received the International Reading Association Award, the National Jewish Book Award, the Phoenix Award, and the Christopher Award. Hesse studied poetry at Towson State College, which contributed to her choice of format for Out of the Dust. In 2002, she was a MacArthur Fellow. She has published a wide variety of works, from children’s books to young adult novels. Among her most notable titles, in addition to Out of the Dust, are Letters from Rifka, Phoenix Rising, and Witness.