Hesse, Karen. 1997. Out of the Dust. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 0590360809
This novel in poetic form spans two years of the protagonist's life. Billie Jo Kelby writes about both what is happening in her life (the losing of crops, her mom, and her love of playing piano) and world events (Dionne quintuplets, Franklin Roosevelt's speeches). She lives in a small Oklahoma Panhandle town where her father tries to grow wheat. Due to a terrible accident, she loses her mother, her unborn brother and terribly injures her hands. Through her struggles, she becomes stronger, and the story becomes one of hope and redemption, all rising out of the dust where Billie realizes that she "can stay in one place and still grow" (226).
I enjoyed reading this book so much that I read it in one day. I needed to see what would happen to Billie. I felt like I was with her and experiencing everything as she did. There was a rhythm to the reading. The images Karen Hesse creates of living in the Panhandle during the Depression are heart wrenching. Each poem is like reading a dated journal page of Billie's life. Most of the titles in the book were one word giving the reader a sense of what the poem would be about or the emotions that Billie was feeling.
The form the poems take show more than just what the words state. For example, in the poem "The Dream" (193), the visual space between the words mimicked playing a piano and allowed me to see Billie's hesitation of even touching her mother's piano.
At some points during the novel, I felt like I was drowning in the dust with her. "I waited for my father through the night, coughing up dust, cleaning dust out of my ears, rinsing my mouth, blowing mud out of my nose" (145). I also realized the symbolism of her continuing to live even though life didn't seem worth living. "I don't want to die, I just want to go, away, out of the dust" (149). She feels like she's suffocating because of her circumstances.
YA readers will be captivated by the vivid imagery of Hesse's writing. The book is not distracting because of the poetic form. The words do not rhyme, but the reader does not notice. The story is compelling. In one stanza of the poem entitled "Outlined by Dust," Billie remarks on her father's well being. "I can't help thinking how it is for him, without Ma. Waking up alone, only his shape left in the bed, outlined by dust" (112). The reader can see that she feels compassion and empathy for her father's loss.
The voice of the narrator is authentic. The obstacles she faces are not outlandish and over exaggerated. This is Billie's life and for two years, she shares it with us.
BOOKLIST (starred review): "A powerfully compelling tale of a girl with enormous strength, courage and love."PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (starred review): "Readers may find their own feelings swaying in beat with the heroine's shifting moods."
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL (starred review): "Free-verse poems...allow the narrator to speak for her self much more eloquently than would be possible in standard prose."
*Study how the farmers in Texas and Oklahoma were affected by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Compare how accurately Karen Hesse conveys these events in her novel.
*Have students keep a journal for a two or three week time period where they record their life in poetic form.
*Either copy one of Hesse's poems or one students wrote for themselves into narrative form. How does the structure affect the poem? How does the form affect the reading? Do you get the same imagery in narrative form?
*Read other novels in poetic form for exposure to this genre.
Henderson, Caroline. Letters from the Dust Bowl. ISBN 0806135409
Stanley, Jerry. Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp. ISBN 0517880946
Another novel in poetic form by Karen Hesse
Witness. ISBN 0439272009