Out of the Dust
Karen Hesse

Through the struggle of surviving the dirt and dust, a young girl must also learn to overcome the guilt and blame associated with the death of her mother. This tale of courage and strength brings hope to those who have experienced great heartache and disappointment. Set during the Great Depression in the great dust bowl area of Oklahoma, Billie Jo and her Ma and Pa are surviving the land through the drought and the dust. One tragic accident changes their world forever and the story explains how Billie Jo struggles to move on with life.

Billie Jo is an only child living on a farm with her Ma and Pa. The family grows wheat but it hasn’t rained in so long that not much, if any, grows. Billie Jo plays the piano that her mother taught her on. The family is expecting a baby, and they regain hope in their circumstances for a time. There is an accident where Billie Jo’s pregnant mom is burned. The burns are severe and Ma dies while giving birth to Billie Joe’s brother, Franklin, who dies shortly after. Billie Jo is also burned on her hands. The burns make it difficult for her to play the piano, and for a while there is no more music.

Billie Jo blames her father for her ma’s death. If he hadn’t left the pail of kerosene by the stove, then it wouldn’t have burned ma. Billie Jo thinks that her father blames her for her mother’s death (she threw the pail of on-fire kerosene out the door and onto her unsuspecting ma). She writes that her father stares at her burned hands, so she tries to hide them. The two struggle separately with the death of ma, no longer able to communicate; both blaming each other for what was an accident.

Billie Jo takes care of her father for some time. Her hands hurt her and she becomes desperate alongside her father. At last Billie Jo becomes desperate enough to run away. She rides the rails for many days, but then upon seeing the picture of another family, goes back to her pa. Things get better between her and her pa. Louise comes to the house with Pa, and Billie Jo likes her pretty well. It seems to Billie Jo that if her dad has a place for Louise in his heart, than that’s alright with Billie Jo. They become engaged and the fields get planted again. Billie Jo seems happy, once again playing piano and with Louise helping to heal their past hurts.

This story is in diary form written by Billie Jo and explicitly shows her deep pain and hurts over the death of her ma and the dust of the land. Be careful, this story may dig up any past feelings you have been trying to keep hidden. Billie Jo exposes herself in her story and draws you into her life, enough so that the end of the story makes you wish for another page. This would be a great book to read if you enjoy historical diaries or would like The Diary of Anne Frank on a shorter scale. This book should be read by middle schoolers. The text reading would be appropriate for elementary readers, but the graphic text would not be suited to that age group. This would be a great book to read as a class, or alone, in discussion of interpretation of the text and what life would have been like for those who lived through the dust bowl and the Great Depression. - KP