100 pages 3 hours read

Karen Hesse

Out of the Dust

Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Middle Grade | Published in 1997

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Summary and Study Guide


Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust is a historical middle-grade novel in verse first published in 1997. Through 110 first-person free verse poems, the narrative tells the story of two years in the life of Billie Jo Kelby, young daughter of a struggling farming family in the Oklahoma Panhandle in the mid-1930s. After a tragic accident results in the death of Billie Jo’s mother and baby brother, she and her father must find a way to reconcile with the past, the future, and each other despite their grief and guilt. The novel explores themes of finding hope amidst tragedy, the resilience of the human spirit, and the impact of man’s ignorance on the environment. Out of the Dust won the John Newbery Award and the Scott O’Dell Award in 1998 and was named an ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children) Notable Children’s Book. This guide references the 1997 edition by Scholastic Press. Content warnings: Billie Jo’s mother sustains fatal burns in an accident; there are three uses of the term “crippled” to describe injuries.

Plot Summary

Protagonist Billie Jo Kelby is 13 when the story opens in January of 1934. She lives on a small farm with parents Bayard and Polly in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. The nearest sizable town is Joyce City. Billie Jo attends school, excels academically, and loves to play piano, especially fast, energetic tunes. The nation is suffering economically; many have lost jobs, and the family has little cash for supplies or material goods. Additionally, a series of severe droughts show little sign of letting up, so the wheat crop Billie Jo’s father counts on are constantly in danger. Dust storms also plague the area because of the dry conditions and high winds. Despite their hardships, the Kelbys focus on their day-to-day work, chores, and schooling; they also excitedly await the arrival of a new baby. After many years of hoping for another child, Ma is expecting and due in late summer.

As winter proceeds, Billie Jo’s best friend Livie moves away because her family wants to seek better opportunities elsewhere. The school music teacher, Arley Wanderdale, asks Billie Jo to play piano for public gatherings in Joyce City. Mad Dog Craddock, a fine-looking 16-year-old boy whom Billie Jo knows, sings at these events and everyone notices his talent. When the crop is deficient in April, Ma tries to convince Daddy to diversify with cotton or other crops, but he stubbornly insists on trying wheat again. He also refuses to try her suggestion of digging a pond. In June, Arley convinces Ma to allow Billie Jo to go on the road playing piano with his band. Billie Jo loves playing for crowds and enjoys the experience of seeing nearby towns that are new to her.

In mid-summer, tragedy strikes. Ma sustains terrible burns in a household accident because of Daddy’s and Billie Jo’s inadvertent actions. Billie Jo tries to save her mother, burning her own hands badly in the process. Ma’s injuries prove fatal; though the baby is born alive just before Ma dies, he, too, passes away soon after. That day, a swarm of grasshoppers decimate the wheat and Ma’s beloved apple trees. Devastated by grief, Billie Jo’s father cannot even name the baby when the minister asks, so Billie Jo names him Franklin after President Roosevelt. Ma and Franklin share a grave on the farm property. Billie Jo hears the neighbor women whispering about her culpability in the accident. In August, Billie Jo turns 14 and Daddy starts digging a large pond on the property.

In October, Billie Jo’s father takes a job excavating for tower construction for a power company. Arley asks Billie Jo to play for a dance revue and she agrees. She appreciates how Mad Dog still treats her like the Billie Jo she was before the accident. She thinks she plays terribly since her hands are scarred and stiff. Winter 1935 arrives and brings one good rainstorm. For a few weeks in February, Billie Jo and her classmates share the schoolhouse with a migrant family passing through; the mother is pregnant. Students bring in their families’ donations for the migrants and Billie Jo brings for the new baby the feed-sack nightgowns Ma made for Franklin. When the migrant family leaves town, Billie Jo runs after them, wanting to go too. Later that month, Billie Jo plays for a talent competition in Joyce City after practicing on the school piano. She plays hard, causing her hands to throb and ache. She wins third place, but hears a girl say it was a pity prize for her injuries. Too upset to practice on Ma’s piano, Billie Jo thinks she plays badly at the next show, then gives up playing for good.

In March, Billie Jo’s father, increasingly distant from her, begins night school. By April, Billie Jo cannot ignore her restlessness. She also notices her father’s new spots on his face and neck that resemble the skin cancer that killed his father. He will not go to the doctor. In April, after three lively days of clear conditions, a terrible dust storm waylays Billie Jo and her father on their way to a funeral; by the time they get home, drifted dust fills the house. A good soaking rain comes in May, but dust follows. Billie Jo can barely summon the spirit to clean up after it again. She dreams more and more of leaving the dust behind. When Mad Dog gets the opportunity to sing in Amarillo, she is happy for him, but full of envy too.

Summer arrives. A year after the accident, Billie Jo’s restless need to escape grows to compulsion. She boards a boxcar in the night and rides west for two days. A migrant man boards the car too, and they share stories. Billie Jo soon realizes that leaving home will not cure the loneliness she feels. She also realizes she will never be able to escape the dust, the past, the accident, or the experiences that make her who she is. She believes it is on or near her 15th birthday. She returns home and tells her father she can only grow there with his love and attention. He agrees to go to the doctor. Over the course of the autumn, several circumstances contribute to Billie Jo’s emotional healing: She begins to play piano again; she accepts her father’s new romantic interest, a woman named Louise; most importantly, she forgives herself for her role in the accident that led to Ma’s and Franklin’s deaths and begins to look toward a hopeful future.

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