Title: Out of the Dust
Author: Karen Hesse
Reading age: 8 to 12
Out of the Dust is a riveting, evocative and mournful story of the Great Depression. Karen Hesse's YA novel narrows the focus of the catastrophic Dust Bowl in the Southwest during the 1930's to a single family living in Oklahoma. Through a series of free verse poems the forlorn voice of fourteen-year-old Billie Jo Kelby takes the reader through grim domestic realities and constant dust storms. However Billie Jo still has dreams of a future.
On the Road with Arley
"Here's the way I figure it.
My place in the world is at the piano.
I'm earning a little money playing,
thanks to Arley Wanderdale.
. . . . . . And every little crowd
is grateful to hear a rag or two played
on the piano
by a long-legged, red-haired girl,
even when the piano has a few keys soured by dust.
The starkness of Billie Jo's circumstances immerses the reader deep into a first hand account of the Depression. On each page you will find yourself completely absorbed in the daily struggle for survival. Hesse's voice espouses realism on every page and you can almost taste the grit and dust in your own teeth.
"Rules of Dining",
We shake out our napkins,
spread them on our laps,
and flip over our glasses and plates,
exposing neat circles,
on what life would be without dust.
This book does not provide background or history on any of the characters or events like straight prose might require. Therefore some middle grade children may have trouble understanding the depth and meaning of some of the verses. However, Hesse's words are so powerful that you can see and feel the history and in some cases desperation in words like;
"As summer wheat came ripe,
so did I,
born on the kitchen floor. Ma crouched,
barefoot, bare bottomed
over the swept boards
because that is where daddy said it'd be best. "
You meet families migrating to California only to find things are just as bad there. Not enough jobs. The amount of dust that Billie Jo and her family endure on a daily basis is overwhelming and mind boggling. Dust clogs the tractor motor, ruins the wheat crop, creeps into the bed sheets and ruins Billie Jo's precious piano. It rings true that Billie Joe and her family eats sleeps and drinks dust.
Blankets of Black
"We watched as the storm swallowed the light.
The sky turned from blue
night descended in an instant
and the dust was on us.
Each poem of Hesse's is a work of art giving the people of Billie Jo's small Okalahoma town depth and purpose.
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