Because of Dust
(A Book Review of Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust)
Since reading John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, I’ve often wondered how life could’ve been to the Oklahoman farmers and families who opted not to leave their land. Karen Hesse, in her 1998 Newbery Medal book Out of the Dust, gives us a glimpse of the rigors of farm life in the Depression-era, Dust Bowl Oklahoma through the eyes of Billie Jo as her father scrapes a meager living out of the parched, drought-stricken fields while she grieves the accident that kills her mother, maims her own hands and left alone deals with her own pain amidst the constant gust of dust storms that razes everything on its path, even the feeble resolve of the Panhandle farmers. As Billie Joe sees her life slowly crumble before her eyes, blown away like dust in the wind, a grim determination sets in and wills her to endure.
I believe what sets Out of Dust apart from other children’s book is it doesn’t sugarcoat life, specially to the children which is the book’s target audience, in that Hesse never tell anything less than the truth — a fact immediately palpable once you get to know Billie Jo and her struggles; a fact undoubtedly felt by anyone who’ve come face to face with tragedy and loss; a fact that lingers as you shed a tear or two as she survives and rise to the challenge and arrive at an empowering resolution; a fact shared by all those who read the book calling it nothing short of “depressing,” haunting,” “harrowing,” “an unforgettable read” and whatnot.
What’s really unusual with this book is it is written in free-verse form, the very first I had ever encountered in a children’s book, wherein each episodic poem is like a diary entry that can be read individually but in its whole presents a bigger picture with an accurate sense of time and place, capturing in minute detail the range of emotions the protagonist feels. But what I think is the real genius behind this style is it is almost a subtle understatement to the spare and bare-boned life that Billie Jo and his father lead. Indeed, poetry is the best form to tell Billie Jo’s story conveying by an economy of words and sparse structure a heart that wastes not a single beat yet pulsates with animation, lips that wastes not a single word yet enough to take our breath away.
Working with a variety of themes, what lies at the core of Out of Dust is its lesson about roots and forgiveness. Roots, with its strong emphasis on the strong bonds that unite family members together as seen through the relationship of Billie Jo and her father Bayard who, coming to terms with the death of her pregnant mother, his wife, must redefine the way they see and treat each other; roots, seen through the steadfast belief of the farmers to the land that they tilled for all of their lives that somehow, someday rains will once again pour and bless them with bounty that was once theirs for the taking. Ultimately, it’s the lesson about forgiveness that has the lasting impact to me. Billie Jo is an inspiring character though living in the 1930s Depression era speaks the universal truth that in order to find the courage to move on forward in life, one must not only forgive others for the pain and suffering others have brought, but in the end one should forgive one’s self and in that light realize that yes, we can still weep in sorrow but must not shut ourselves to the joy and the remarkable things life offers by accepting it with hear-felt gratitude.
Through her, I wish readers will learn to appreciate more what they already have in this present day, wherever you are, living or not in harsh conditions in this simple tale of a simple girl and the simple things in life she learned because of dust.
Book Details: Book #14 for 2011
Published by Scholastic
(Trade Paperback, January 1999 Edition)
Started: May 3, 2011
Finished: May 4, 2011