Out of the Dust

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Out of the dust
KarenHesse OutOfTheDust.jpg
First edition cover
Author Karen Hesse
Illustrator Daniel Mullins
Country United States
Language English
Genre Historical Fiction
Publisher Scholastic Press
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 227 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN 0-590-36080-9 (first edition, hardback)
OCLC 36123638
LC Class PZ7.H4364 Ou 1997

Out of the Dust is a verse novel by Karen Hesse, first published in 1997, and the winner of the 1998 Newbery Medal. Set in Oklahoma during the years 1934–1935, the novel tells the story of a family of farmers during the Dust Bowl years. The book follows main character Billie Jo's life and struggles. The structure of the novel is unusual in that the plot is advanced entirely through a series of first-person free verse poems.

Plot summary[edit]

Billie Jo Kelby, the main character, is described in the opening of the book as a long-legged girl, thin and red-headed just like her father ("Daddy"). She was expected to be a boy, and her parents had named her so only to be surprised with a baby girl. With a hunger for the piano playing and the taste of apples, she is growing up in a panhandle shack in Oklahoma.

Billie Jo tells how she knows her father wants to have a son instead of a daughter, but how he loves her anyway. The opening of the book also describes the dust storms causing trouble on farms. (Farms are a vital part to the rural farming community, for it is a homestead area.) As dust storms swoop in and steal any hope of profit from wheat, the US government makes moves to try to help the area. FDR's New Deal is a series of programs to assist farmers (along with the rest of the country). Daddy takes a loan to try and start a new wheat crop, which Ma advised against, but the dust carries it away.

One day while Billie Jo's pregnant mother is making breakfast, her father leaves a can of kerosene next to the stove and then goes out into the fields. Her mother picks up the can, mistakenly thinking it is water and makes "a rope of fire". Screaming to her husband, Billie Jo's mother runs out to the fields, with Billie Jo behind her. Thinking the house may catch on fire, Billie Jo runs back inside and throws the can of kerosene out the door. Unfortunately, her mother is running back to the house, and Billie Jo ends up throwing the can of kerosene onto her mother, lighting her on fire. Billie Jo runs outside and began to beat the flames on her mother with her bare hands in an attempt to save both her mother and unborn sibling. Her mother is taken inside and treated by the local doctor, but she never again looks like "Ma" to Billie Jo, for she is unrecognizable through her burns. Billy Jo's own hands are badly burned as well, swollen and dripping pus. One night, Billie Jo's father takes the money allocated to pay for Billie-Jo's future education and gets drunk. Billie Jo is left trying to give water (using immensely swollen hands) to her injured mother.

A few days later, Billie Jo's mother dies while giving birth to her son. The baby is delivered and lives for a few moments, until he too is pronounced dead. Buried on top of a hill, Billie Jo names him Franklin after the president, for her father was lost for words.

Billie Jo and her father begin to drift apart from each other. After the deaths, Billie Jo stops calling her father "Daddy." Scarred and burned, Billie Jo is left unable to play piano, one of the few joys that had remained in her life. Time goes on, and she begins to notice spots on her father's face, similar to those on her grandfather when he had skin cancer. After trying to return to her former life style, Billie Jo becomes desperate to get out of the dust, so she gets up and leaves one night with only a handful of biscuits.

She hitchhikes on a train, and a homeless and smelly man comes up to her. Talking for a while, he shows her a picture of his family before she falls asleep. She awakens to find that her food is gone, but the picture that the man had of his family is left in its place. It is here she learns of her sense of belonging, and it all becomes clear to her.

After a week, Billie Jo returns home and convinces her father to go see a doctor. She calls him "Daddy" for the first time since the incident. The two even start to gain each other's trust again. She then meets Louise, a woman who stayed with her father while Billie was on the run. Billie Jo respects Louise because Louise knows how to cope with "two red heads" and not "step on the toes of a ghost". Billie Jo and Louise just talk, and her father eventually ends up marrying Louise.

The novel ends with Billie Jo describing her life as not the best but still happy. Even though she missed Ma and wanted Franklin back, she was out of the rest of her struggles and always tried to forget about it; sad and happy. The departure of the dust storms and her father being happy and alive give hope. She just might stay out of the dust after all.

Awards and nominations[edit]

  • 1998 Newbery Medal
  • Scott O'Dell Award
  • ALA Notable Children's Book
  • ALA "Best Book"
  • School Library Journal "Best Book of the Year"
  • Booklist "Editors' Choice" award
  • Book Links "Lasting Connection"
  • Publishers Weekly "Best Book of the Year"
  • New York Public Library "100 Titles for Reading and Sharing"
Preceded by
The View from Saturday
Newbery Medal recipient
Succeeded by