After seventy days
of wind and sun,
of wind and clouds,
of wind and sand,
after seventy days,
of wind and dust,
For me, part of the fun of this blog is revisiting old favorites from my childhood, and today’s book, Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, is one. This book won the Newbery in 1997, so I must still have been in elementary school when I read it, but I could still remember just how much I loved it, even if I couldn’t remember many of the plot specifics.
Out of the Dust is narrated by fourteen year-old Billie Jo in a series of free-form poems. Billie Jo lives in Depression-era Oklahoma on a failing farm with her mother and father. She’s a gifted blues piano player, but life is hard when near-constant dust storms ruin the crops and cattle, and her family is barely skating by. When a fire claims her mother, her unborn brother, and her hands, it seems like all is lost. Her grief-stricken father is drifting away, it hurts too much to play piano, and the dust is only getting worse. But there’s a hard kernel in Billie Jo that just won’t let things go, and she begins the slow journey back to happiness.
This book is a lyrical masterpiece, and while it’s meant for younger-grade readers, even now, more than ten years after I first opened its pages, I can find beauty in the sparse wording and stark imagery. Hesse’s gift for description is powerful enough that you can taste the dusty grit in your teeth. Billie Jo herself is as tough as the land she lives on, but her pain is sharp and to the bone and it is as painful as it is heartening to watch as she pulls her pieces back together.
Out of the Dust is a beautiful book about a bleak time in American history, but most of all it is about the resilience of the human spirit. Billie Jo’s strength doesn’t come from an accomplishment, or from someone else she depends on – it comes from her own self. This book deals honestly (sometimes painfully) with real trauma. Billie Jo’s road is a hard one, but she walks it with purpose and strength, and in the end, this is a book about one little girl’s very big heart.