Saturday, May 7, 2016

Out of the Dust

Out of the Dust
by Karen Hesse
Recommended Ages: 12+

This novel, written entirely in poetry, presents itself as the diary of a teenage farm girl in the Oklahoma Panhandle during 1934-35, when the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl combined to make life excruciatingly hard. It couldn't get much harder for Billie Jo Kelby without killing her. A tall, skinny, boyish-looking redhead, at age 14 she loves nothing more than playing the piano. She does it well enough to earn a little money that her taciturn, mildly disapproving mother stashes away for Billie Jo's college fund. Her father, meanwhile, struggles to grow anything in fields that aren't getting enough rain. Whenever the wheat seems to be perking up, another dust storm blows through and decimates the crop.

By age 15, Billie Jo's outlook is rather darker. She all but gives up playing the piano after an accident with a pail of kerosene left her hands burned, her mother and a newborn brother dead, and a silence between her and her father as suffocating as the dust that blows through the cracks in the house and gets into everything. Today's reader, who may not have experienced anything like the dust storms that repeatedly afflict Billie Jo's panhandle, will be amazed to enter this book's world of food made gritty by dust, of barns pushed over by drifting dunes, of a building that collapsed when its attic filled with dust, of a funeral procession that started on a clear sunny day and had to stop midway due to a cloud of dust that stalled engines and turned day to night.

It's no wonder Billie Jo would want to run away from it. The wonder is that she doesn't, or at least not for long, in spite of the apparent hopelessness of her father's farming methods, the silence across their kitchen table, and the shadow of blame on both of them for her mother's death. That such a story can have an uplifting ending, and not one based on the characters fleeing to California, is owed to several factors, but chief among them is a heart-moving realization both father and daughter arrive at by the end.

At times while reading this book, I wasn't quite convinced of the concept of a novel in verse; quite often it seemed to amount to prose with arbitrary line breaks added to make the paragraphs look more spread-out. Sometimes I noticed that the line breaks carried rhythmic suggestions for reading the book out loud. And then there were stretches of flat-out lyricism, like this:
I hear the first drops.
Like the tapping of a stranger
at the door of a dream,
the rain changes everything.
It strokes the roof,
streaking the dusty tin,
a concert of rain notes,
spilling from gutters,
gushing through gullies,
soaking into the thirsty earth outside.
And then I was convinced...for a while. Billie Jo never explains why she is writing her diary in the form of poetry, or even refers to writing it at all. Telling stories from the characters' point of view, in the style of poetry, seems to be just a Karen Hesse thing. She does something similar, I find, at least in Witness, the book I read immediately after this.

This book won the 1998 Newbery Medal award and the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, among many other honors. Hesse's other titles include Phoenix Rising (about life after a nuclear accident), A Time of Angels (about the 1918 influenza epidemic), The Music of Dolphins (about a girl raised by dolphins), Witness (about the KKK in 1920s Vermont), and more.

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