Saturday, February 24, 2007

Poems--Out of the Dust

Hesse, Karen. 1997. Out of the Dust. NewYork: Scholastic Press. ISBN 0590360809

Out of the dust is a novel in verse through the eyes of a young, red-haired, 14-year-old girl named Billie Jo Kelby. The setting is in Oklahoma in the 1930s. The story is based on the dust bowl era when farms were devastated by the dust storms and drought. Billie Jo dreams of becoming a musician and getting away from the dust and poverty.

All her dreams are dashed when a personal tragedy hits the family. Billy Jo’s father leaves a pail with kerosene in the kitchen. Her mother uses it thinking it is a pail of water and ignites a fire. While trying to help to put out the fire, Billy Jo accidentally causes her mother further injuries and burns her own hands in the process. Billy Jo’s mother and her unborn brother die subsequently. “Under their words a finger pointed”, she says to herself as she hears whispers about the incident. Her feelings of guilt intensify as her remote father becomes even more withdrawn after the accident. The rest of the story describes Billy Jo’s grief due to her inability to play the piano, her loneliness, her ambivalent feelings about her father, and her love/hate relationship with the land.

Eventually Billy Jo runs away. She meets a drifter who has no family and realizes that "Getting away wasn't any better, just different and lonely." She adds: "And I know now that all the time I was trying to get out of the dust, the fact is, what I am, I am because of the dust." The relationship between father and daughter improves as Billy Jo decides to forgive her father and herself. The rain comes, Billie Jo’s father finds a woman who loves him, and Billie Jo starts healing emotionally and physically.


Even though the narrative poem is based during the dust bowl in the 1930s, most families, especially those who live in tornado zones, or hurricane regions, or in rural areas, can relate to the verses. The concern about lack of water, bad weather affects, and loss of income affects family members, young and old any time.

Karen Hesse has a way with words to illustrate the characters in the poem. She describes

Billie Jo as: “a long-legged girl…with a fondness for apples and a hunger for playing fierce piano.”

Here is a verse that demonstrates Billie Jo’s resentment toward her undemonstrative mother when Billie Jo achieves academic success.

“I wish she’d give me a little more to hold on to than
“I knew you could.” /Instead she makes me feel like she’s just/taking me in like I was/
so much flannel dry on the line”.

Hesse uses the ripening of apples to symbolize hope. The wind causes the apples to drop to the ground before they are ripened. Billy Jo’s mother and brother die at around the same time. When the rain comes and the apples start growing and ripening, Billy Jo and her father begin to rebuild their relationship and their circumstances begin to improve.

The author also uses simile to compare Billy Jo to wheat and her father to sod:

“I tell him he is like the sod./And I am like the wheat,/And I can’t grow everywhere,/But I can grow here./ With a little rain,/With a little care,/With a little luck”.

Hesse clever use of free verse and imagery throughout the poem draws a picture of a young girl’s heartbreak and despair and the strength and hope that she discovers within as she grows and matures.

From Publishers Weekly
Publishers Weekly, 01/11/1999

In a starred review of the 1998 Newbery Medal winner, set during the Depression, PW said, "This intimate novel, written in stanza form, poetically conveys the heat, dust and wind of Oklahoma. With each meticulously arranged entry Hesse paints a vivid picture of her heroine's emotions." Ages 11-13. (Jan.)

BookList, 10/01/1997

Gr. 6-9. "Daddy came in, / he sat across from Ma and blew his nose. / Mud streamed out. / He coughed and spit out / mud. / If he had cried, / his tears would have been mud too, / but he didn't cry. / And neither did Ma." This is life in the Oklahoma dust bowl in the mid-1930s. Billie Jo and her parents barely eke out a living from the land, as her father refuses to plant anything but wheat, and the winds and dust destroy the crop time after time. Playing the piano provides some solace, but there is no comfort to be had once Billie Jo's pregnant mother mistakes a bucket of kerosene for a bucket of water and dies, leaving a husband who withdraws even further and an adolescent daughter with terribly burned hands. The story is bleak, but Hesse's writing transcends the gloom and transforms it into a powerfully compelling tale of a girl with enormous strength, courage, and love. The entire novel is written in very readable blank verse, a superb choice for bringing out the exquisite agony and delight to be found in such a difficult period lived by such a vibrant character. It also spares the reader the trouble of wading through pages of distressing text, distilling all the experiences into brief, acutely observed phrases. This is an excellent book for discussion, and many of the poems stand alone sufficiently to be used as powerful supplements to a history lesson. ((Reviewed October 1, 1997)) -- Susan Dove Lempke. Booklist, published by the American Library Association.

School Library Journal, 09/01/1997

Gr 5 Up?In the midst of the Dust Bowl, 13-year-old Billie Jo loses her mother and unborn brother in an accident that she is partly responsible for and burns her own hands so badly that she may never again find solace in her only pleasure?playing the piano. Growing ever more distant from her brooding father, she hops on a train going west, and discovers that there is no escaping the dust of her Oklahoma home?she is part of it and it is part of her. Hesse uses free-verse poems to advance the plot, allowing the narrator to speak for herself much more eloquently than would be possible in standard prose. The author's astute and careful descriptions of life during the dust storms of the 1930s are grounded in harsh reality, yet are decidedly poetic; they will fascinate as well as horrify today's readers. Hesse deals with questions of loss, forgiveness, home, and even ecology by exposing and exploring Billie Jo's feelings of pain, longing, and occasional joy. Readers may at first balk at a work of fiction written as poetry, but the language, imagery, and rhythms are so immediate that after only a few pages it will seem natural to have the story related in verse. This book is a wonderful choice for classrooms involved in journal-writing assignments, since the poems often read like diary entries. It could also be performed effectively as readers' theater. Hesse's ever-growing skill as a writer willing to take chances with her form shines through superbly in her ability to take historical facts and weave them into the fictional story of a character young people will readily embrace.?Carrie Schadle, New York Public Library

Display the poem in the classroom or library. Use it to teach about the Dust Bowl period in 1930’s in the history of Oklahoma.

Other books by Karen Hesse:

The Music of Dolphins 0-590-897985

Letters from Rifka 0140363912

Witness 0439272009

Other similar historical books:

Criss Cross by Perkins, Lynne Rae 0060092726

Talkin’ about Bessie: the story of aviator Elizabeth Coleman by Nikki Grimes 0439352436

Jazmin’s notebook by Nikki Grimes 0803722249

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