Laurinda’s Rating: 5/5
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse won the 1998 Newbery Medal. It is a hauntingly beautiful chronicle of life during the Dust Bowl. Set in 1930’s Oklahoma, the main character, Billie Joe, tells her story in verse.
At the beginning of the narrative, Billie Joe lives with her parents on a farm that’s barely getting by because of the dust storms and drought. Her mother keeps everyone going through her determination about previously simple tasks, like housekeeping, which now take intense effort. A tragic accident takes everything away and strains the relationship between Billie Joe and her father. Her dad leaves a bucket of kerosene next to the stove, where it ignites. Billie Joe throws the bucket out the door just as her mother comes back from yelling for help, splattering her mother with the kerosene. The injuries send her mom into preterm labor and both baby and mother die in childbirth. Billie Joe, formerly a pianist, scorches her hands badly, taking her music away for a long time. The rest of the book reflects on Billie Joe’s struggle to come back from this loss. In the end, it takes running away to show her the value of home. She, her father, and her father’s new girlfriend Louise make a life together, not forgetting the past but choosing to focus on hope and the future.
This book captures both daily life and the internal struggles of a teenager faced with tragedy on every front. Billie Joe’s voice, her self-doubt and anger and, eventually, acceptance and joy, is strong. The narration is matter of fact, discussing feelings as well as events. I’m emphatically NOT a crier. I can count on one hand the number of books which have brought me to tears. However, this one joined the ranks. I’m a sucker for people who push through such terrible odds and make a meaningful life out of what they have.
I highly recommend Out of the Dust. It is a poignant chronicle of life during a tough period of American history. Besides capturing the struggle of daily activities in a way which prompts understanding, it gives voice to an interesting, strong-willed girl who learns the importance of home only when she gets “out of the dust”.
If you have the chance, I also recommend visiting the History Colorado Center. They have a reproduction Dust Bowl/Great Depression cabin designed to help you experience a dust storm. You sit on bench inside a cabin. In addition to video, the lighting changes to mimic incoming dust, wind blows over you, etc.