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Out of the Dust

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When Billie Jo is just fourteen she must endure heart-wrenching ordeals that no child should have to face. The quiet strength she displays while dealing with unspeakable loss is as surprising as it is inspiring. Written in free verse, this award-winning story is set in the heart of the Great Depression. It chronicles Oklahoma's staggering dust storms, and the environmental--and emotional--turmoil they leave in their path. An unforgettable tribute to hope and inner strength.

227 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1987

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About the author

Karen Hesse

56 books450 followers
Karen Hesse is an American author of children's literature and literature for young adults, often with historical settings. Her novel Out of the Dust was the winner of the 1998 Newbery Medal and the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. In 2002, Hesse was a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship.

For more information, please see http://us.macmillan.com/author/karenh...

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5 stars
23,131 (30%)
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3 stars
18,484 (24%)
2 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,222 reviews
Profile Image for Ryan.
51 reviews375 followers
November 16, 2016

The other day, just out of the blue, I was hit with the thought, "Remember that book about the Dust Bowl you read for school ages ago, and hated with a fury? You should review it and avenge your past self for being subjugated to it."

So that's exactly what I did.

I swear, this was me the entire book:


You know what's coming, folks. Time for another rant with Ryan.


Where do I even begin? I read this back when it was required reading, and I absolutely hated it. This was probably the most boring book I have ever read. Not to mention infinitely depressing. (Granted, it takes place in the Great Depression, but still.)


No character seemed to have any personality whatsoever.


The writing style annoyed the living hell out of me.


The story dragged on and on.


And the only reason I didn't DNF this was because I needed to read it for a grade.


*rolls eyes into the back of my head*


Basically just:


Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews928 followers
March 12, 2018
Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (1998 Newberry Medal winner) is a poignant coming of age story chronicling a young woman's struggle with loss and hardship during Oklahoma's Dust Bowl. Written in blank verse, its rhythm somehow matches the spare landscape and emotional toil of the protagonist. It's an easy and quick read, but worthwhile. 3.5 stars rounded up.
Profile Image for karen.
3,988 reviews170k followers
June 13, 2009
will someone tell me why this is written in verse?? it doesnt add anything to the feel of the book; if anything, it is distracting and seems very contrived. why would this character be writing poems?? it would make so much more sense to write this as diary entries. maybe because poems take up more room so you can get away with writing less to make up a full book?? no one knows. that being said, i liked this, but its not going to earn a place on my childrens book wall of fame. its kind of horrifying - man against nature and man losing woefully. but its a nice piece about tragedy and endurance and strength and ... america. im sure kids would dig it.
Profile Image for K.D. Absolutely.
1,820 reviews
April 11, 2011
This story is so dark and gruesome that if it were put in prose and not in verse, would probably not pass the standard of the judges for the Newberry Medal. Yes, this won that medal (1998) because the beautiful verses toned down the gloom and sadness that even a middle-age man Asian guy like me felt while imagining what happened to the Kelby family during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl in 1934-1935. It is just too sad that even the harrowing experience of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s magnum opus, "The Grapes of Wrath", can’t compare. Imagine:
- you are an only child and all of you, your father and mother, are all bone and skin because of poverty.
- you set your pregnant mum on fire and when she gave birth, she and the infant died
- you cannot play piano anymore because your hand got burned too
- your father has cancer and one time you found him digging his own grave
At least the Joad family, in Steinbeck 1940 novel is an extended one and the men were able to work in the farm so they left Sallisaw for California. The Kelby family has no choice but to stay and wait for their death. The Joad family has 2-4 healthy men unlike here where there is only the father Bayard who works alone in the farm but unfortunately gets cancer in the middle of the story. At least, Rose of Sharon Joad Rivers of Grapes was healthy and her milk could feed the dying man. Here, the protagonist is a 14-y/o Bille Jo Kelby who’s still studying and only plays a piano to help the family and she has no milk yet. Okay this is a children’s book so let’s not go there.

But seriously, the story is bleaker than Grapes and I am glad that I read this since the latter is one of my favorites. The Dust Bowl is the reverse of tsunami. During the dust bowl, it is hot, dry, and dust flies around like a black storm. In tsunami, it is water everywhere. Both of them are harrowing, shocking and can be unimaginably furious and can fatal to hundreds of people.

Nice unforgettable read.
Profile Image for Connor.
5 reviews
May 25, 2008
This book is so depressing I wanted to shoot myself.
Profile Image for Lisa.
991 reviews3,320 followers
December 4, 2016
“The way I see it, hard times aren't only about money,
or drought,
or dust.
Hard times are about losing spirit,
and hope,
and what happens when dreams dry up.”

When I look for books for my children, I quite frequently end up buying one book to explain and illustrate another. I had bought The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History to give them (and myself, as I always end up reading their books as well) a new perspective on the Great Depression era, and this small children's novel in verse seemed to be a perfect complement to offer a more personal, direct approach to history through fiction.

And what a book it is. Told in poems, through the lens of a young girl experiencing the dust storms in the Plains firsthand, it makes the dusty air and dried-up dreams tangible.

Highly recommended addition to secondary literature on the history of the 1930s, or just for its own sake, as a story of a family during one of the harshest chapters in American agricultural history!
Profile Image for Shannon A.
674 reviews532 followers
February 21, 2016
This is a must read children's book for me. I loved it as a kid and I loved jumping back into it. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend.
Profile Image for Donna.
543 reviews182 followers
February 10, 2017
Beginning: August 1920

As summer wheat came ripe
so did I,
born at home, on the kitchen floor.
Ma crouched,
barefoot, bare bottomed
over the swept boards,
because that's where Daddy said it'd be best

I came too fast for the doctor, bawling as soon as Daddy wiped his hand around inside my mouth.
To hear Ma tell it,
I hollered myself red the day I was born.
Red's the color I've stayed ever since.

Daddy named me Billie Jo.
He wanted a boy.
he got a long-legged girl
with a wide mouth
and cheekbones like bicycle handles.
He got a red-headed, freckle-faced, narrow-hipped girl
with a fondness for apples
and a hunger for playing fierce piano

That is how this book began, and what a powerful beginning it was. It surprised me when I learned the entire book would continue this way, written in blank verse. I had never read a novel with this format before, and after some initial resistance to it, I came to enjoy the way the words flowed on the page as Billie Jo, 14, voiced her thoughts about herself, her family, and her place in a world wracked with misery. Her search for ways to endure it, then combat it, was at the heart of this sad, but ultimately inspirational story.

This book is a work of fiction, but the author based it on a conglomeration of stories from real life that she had taken from newspaper accounts of the Dust Bowl between the years 1920-1935. It was almost too much for me to read all those harrowing details of hardship compressed into one story of a young girl coming of age during that time. But same as with other historical fiction books, I finished it and stood as a witness in honor of those who had suffered, and felt gratitude at never having gone through what those people did during that time.

Fields of Flashing Light

I heard the wind rise,
and stumbled from my bed,
down the stairs,
into the yard.
The night sky kept flashing,
lightning danced down on its spindly legs.

I sensed it before I knew it was coming.
I heard it,
smelled it,
tasted it.

While Ma and Daddy slept,
the dust came,
tearing up fields where the winter wheat,
set for harvest in June,
stood helpless.
I watched the plants,
surviving after so much drought and so much wind,
I watched them fry,
or blow away,
like bits of cast-off rags.

It wasn't until the dust turned toward the house,
liked a fired locomotive,
and I fled,
barefoot and breathless, back inside,
it wasn't until the dust
hissed against the windows,
until it ratcheted the roof,
that Daddy woke.

This YA novel won the prestigious Newberry Award and was a book my older daughter read in middle school. I'm glad I've finally caught up with her when reading it, too. It taught me in simple terms how the Dust Bowl came into being. It taught me what humans can endure when tested beyond all endurance in both body and spirit. It taught me what music and a bowl of apples can represent in a life leaking hope. It taught me that people are stronger together than apart. It also taught me the rewards of reading something outside my comfort zone, thanks to my book club. Here's a link for anyone wanting to read a brief interview with the author which includes her inspiration for this novel and why she wrote it in the style she did:

Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books818 followers
February 2, 2015
I read this book (historical fiction told in prose poetry) yesterday. Then, this morning, I saw in the newspaper that the Oklahoma Panhandle (where the book is set) is experiencing a drought worse than during the Dust Bowl, the time period of this novel.

I think if I had been able to read this as a child, it would've made an even bigger impression on me. It would've stayed in my memory and I probably would've gone on to read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath when I got older. (I still need to do that!)

While the accident this family experiences is horrific, I think the image that will stay with me is the narrator and her father caught in a dust storm as they are driving to a funeral. The amount of dust (and how it gets into everything) is staggering to think about! This is the kind of thing fiction can sometimes do better than history, placing you in a world you know nothing about and causing you to feel and see what is happening around you, almost as if you were there.
Profile Image for kwesi 章英狮.
292 reviews726 followers
April 22, 2011
I never enjoyed my history subject when I was young, I always have the worst teacher and the worst field trips in my entire life. Contradict to that, I enjoyed reading historical fiction and children's books. Although I don't have any idea about dust bowl or the great depression or whatever happened that time. I told you, I never learned something from my world history teacher. But after reading this book last year, I was amazed that Karen Hesse wrote something emotional for children to love and to learn by reading, not in prose but in verses.

Imagine a depressing book for children! I like this kind of books, not because it was so emotional or too gore because I can feel emotions of the characters and the events that happened on the book. Maybe the verses really put something special and added more spices for the book to be like and won the Newberry Medal. The book was also called as verse novel, a type of narrative poetry in which a novel-length narrative is told through the medium of poetry rather than prose. Either simple or complex stanzaic verse-forms may be used, but there will usually be a large cast, multiple voices, dialogue, narration, description, and action in a novelistic manner. This type of writing is also used in some of the famous novels like Iliad. Maybe some find it annoying or find it too elegant, it depends on the reader itself.

The novel happened in 1934 to 1935 where Oklahoma is in a state of depression because of the great drought and dust storm happened. Hesse said, that in the late 90s issues like this was not entirely been covered by the media and only limited resources were shared via newspapers and journals. It must be depressing in their own time and place with limited food and water, destroyed shelter, dieing relatives and dust pneumonia. As a kidg, how can you help yourself and your family to survive in the dust?

Billy Jo, started writing in the year 1934 describing her physical characteristic and her love to music. She wanted green fields and flowers that blooms and smelled like the morning but a very tragic happened, a great drought soon came and started a dust storm that killed the plants, the animals, her friends, family and even her dreams. She was a simple kid with a big dream, wanted to play piano vigorously, non-stop and had a crush like normal kids.

Those dreams dry up when her dad accidentally stored a bucket of kerosene and her mother boiled and splashed with the kerosene that burned her mother, her fetus brother and her delicate hands. Losing not only her dream of having a happy family but also her mother's dream for her to go outside Oklahoma to study and play piano. She managed to move on and try to be like any other girls. Can she survive from the loneliness and depression that manifested all the people that time or she will be another corpse for people to mourn with?

But that time not all people mourn for their safety, but they also enjoyed what little they have from the food they shared to the people who sheltered them. Playing pianos and small dance gathering were the only happiness they have. While reading the book I was like reading in proses, Hesse didn't used rhyming words and the book is specially crafted for children.

"the way i see it,
hard times aren't only about money,
or drought,
or dust.
hard times are about losing spirit,
and hope,
and what happens when dreams dry up."

Because of major agricultural farming, soil were becoming unfertile and people were not prepared to face the long drought causing dust storm.

Rating - Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, 5 Sweets and blessings for the survivors! (I really enjoyed reading this book and it was so amazing that Hesse wrote this in unique way. Writing it by verses to play with the characters emotion. Not bad and recommended for those people who like to read Steinbeck books.)

Book #68 for 2011
Goodreads - Filipinos, 2nd Quarter: (Book 1) YA Book from Kwesi's Shelf

April 8, 2017
I was struggling, really struggling to figure out which dress I wanted to wear to a wedding this weekend, just as I finally cracked open Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, to see if it would be an appropriate read for my 8 year old (it wasn't).

Well, I quickly felt like a flaky and flimsy fool. It's not that I don't know what happened in the 1930s dust bowl that was Oklahoma. I am, after all, a John Steinbeck devotee, but it was good to be reminded that people have done some serious suffering here on this planet, and hunting for the right dress just doesn't qualify in the same category.

Perspective. We all need perspective from time to time, especially adolescents who are terrified by acne and notes and texts which have fallen into the wrong hands. It's not that those things aren't terrifying; they are, they're just nowhere near as terrifying as melted hands and eating dust for 2 years.

As far as I'm concerned, 9th graders need a whole lot less Taming of the Shrew and a whole lot more Out of the Dust.
Profile Image for Apokripos.
146 reviews18 followers
May 27, 2011
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)
228 pages
Started: May 3, 2011
Finished: May 4, 2011
My Rating:★★★★

[See this review on my book blog Dark Chest of Wonders and for many others.]
Profile Image for Greg.
1,117 reviews1,877 followers
June 12, 2009
Book number 4, I mean 6, on my Young Adult whirlwind reading binge. I think these books are making my head go softer than it already was.

This is an ambivalent three stars. This book didn't do much for me. I like that the reviews that I glanced at for this book all called this really depressing. Maybe I don't like it, but I find it kind of amusing. I didn't find it all that depressing, the most depressing thing in the book I think was lifted from Woody Guthries life, opps. I don't really know about the structure of the book. There wasn't really so much 'poetry' as

short journal like
entries that
were written
kind of
like this.

But there was nothing about the book that angered or annoyed me, it just didn't do much for me.

I can see this book being very very dangerous in the hands of awful middle school English teachers. There is just enough 'depth' to the book to make some hack teacher feel like Harold Fucking Bloom as they dazzle and frighten their charges with close textual readings that will drive any child away from books.
Profile Image for Timothy Urgest.
529 reviews284 followers
May 31, 2023
I am so filled with bitterness, it comes from the dust, it comes from the silence of my father…
Profile Image for laurel [the suspected bibliophile].
1,507 reviews452 followers
June 25, 2023
Fuck this book is heartbreaking.

I remember reading it when it first came out. It was the first book in verse I had ever read, and one of the saddest books I had ever read. The words wrapped around me, filling me with sorrow and loss and, slowly, hope.

Anywho, I can't help but think on this reread what the hell was going on with publishing in the 90s. Y'all think kids these days experience weird shit, but they never had to read this book and sob over a baby born of fire and a mom who died horrifically and a girl who's talent was stripped right out of her hands, all in the midst of one of the worst ecological disasters in history.
Profile Image for Jypsy .
1,524 reviews57 followers
December 27, 2018
I first this in maybe high school? I read it again last year. Out of The Dust is such a profound impactful read. I didn't appreciate all of its nuances until I read it as an adult. So tragic. So beautiful written in a unique style. Perhaps Out Of The Dust should be required college reading. Karen Hesse' s words stay with you long after the reading is done.
20 reviews1 follower
November 24, 2008
Maybe I would like this more if I read it now on my own. As it is, I read it in high school and hated every second of it. Most depressing thing I've ever read in my life. I understand that living in the Oklahoma dust bowl would be horrible but that's not the depressing part...
Profile Image for Kristi Lamont.
1,615 reviews48 followers
August 8, 2021
My God, what an incredibly powerful book.

Came across it in the back floorboard of my sister’s vehicle; one of The Precious Nephews had left it there instead of returning it to school after reading it as a class assignment. And I am so very, very thankful that he did.

As usual, I’m having a difficult time putting into words why a book moved me so. And, also as usual, I come back around to the concept of “fever dream.” It was as if I was living Billie Jo’s life in Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma for a while yesterday afternoon. Finishing the book felt like I was stepping out of one reality into another.

The fact Karen Hesse chose to write Out of the Dust in free verse only makes it more powerful. The words were like magic spells, I swear.

And you know what else? I actually really enjoyed reading all of the After Words (TM), which seems to come standard now with Scholastic Gold books. You’d better believe I’m going to go check out the additional content available online at scholastic.com, too.

OK, I’m rambling. But before I quit, I gotta tell y’all this: At one point in the book Billie Jo talked about wanting to join the Civilian Conservation Corps (which she couldn’t do because she was a girl and not old enough). Don’t you know I just about couldn’t wait to finish the book and tell the boys that their great-grandpa (my PawPaw Day, Mother’s daddy) was a member!!

I’m not sure it made quite the impression on them that I’d hoped, but maybe someday they’ll have a fond memory of that discussion. I did at least enjoy discussing the book with them; they both really liked it, too.

Finally (I promise), I am also delighted to have learned about Ms Hesse. Can’t wait to read more by her.
Profile Image for Tasha .
1,058 reviews37 followers
April 26, 2019
Beautifully written in that free verse poetry style that I've recently discovered. An emotional story with so much history as it gives us a glimpse of what it must have been like to live in the dust bowl era and the hardships involved. I thoroughly enjoyed this and feel like it would great for any age to read.
Profile Image for Ln Rispoli.
7 reviews
May 12, 2014
Out of the Dust is my kind of book. It is an incredibly emotional story told through poetry. The book is slow paced because of the poetic convention but this allows your feelings to develop and grow as you sympathize for the main character Billie Jo and her family. Even though Out of the Dust is set less than a century ago it feels like a very different world. The Depression was tough for a lot of people but the Dust Bowl was truly horrific. Often times when people think about such major tragedies in history they forget about individual people and their own stories. Or when authors write historical fiction they let the conflict set a backdrop and barely go into it focussing on the characters and their lives. Out of the Dust balances the two really nicely. Billie Jo is a young girl and might not understand a lot of what is going on around her, but it is not difficult to understand what things really mean when you have the right background. Even without the background it is not difficult to imagine the significance of what happens. In the fifth grade this book was pivotal to my understanding of the Depression and the Dust bowl. Told through the eyes of a young girl Billie Jo was easy to identify with even if her struggles were not. The way the free verse poetry lends itself to the reader makes the troubles and the emotions of Billie Jo very plain spoken. Her words really hit home creating vivid images of thin sheets of dust covering food, thicker layers of dust caving in houses, the layers of dust hanging in the air making it necessary to wear bedsheets over open wounds. It's gruesome and terrifying to think about. Even though the Dust Bowl was a natural disaster it was still caused by poor Agricultural techniques as described by Billie Jo when she mentioned her father taking out a loan for more wheat (a government New Deal incentive) which was squandered away just as fast as he could drink the money away. The book is laced with a lot of emotional baggage dealing with poverty, alcoholism, guilt and shame, despair, and perseverance. They were dealt with delicately and the poems were empowering. The book flowed nicely and poems echoed one another hauntingly reminiscing the time before the trouble and looking for a hope.
Out of the Dust is also a very quick read and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who would like a new take on America's darkest hour. Even though it's told from a young narrator it is timeless and everyone can benefit. There's always something new to be found in this enriching read.
Profile Image for Maegan (The Slinky Serpent).
18 reviews3 followers
November 24, 2017
Why. WHY???? Oh God. Why. I was just scrolling through Goodreads and I saw this book. When I say I wanted to break down into frustrated, angry, depressed tears I am not exaggerating. It's been years since I first read this and you have another thing coming if you think I'm going to re-read for this review. This was the single most brain-numbing, depressing thing I have EVER read in my life. Again it's been years so this is just a vague rehash, let's all remember this book takes place in the Great Depression during the dust bowl. So not only are we depressed there's also dust everywhere. The main character Billie Jo, is an aspiring pianist. However her dad resents her because he wanted a son (so there's that) and of course they've fallen on hard times. It all sounds very depressing, but the story gets darker. Billie Jo is in the kitchen one day and just so happens to throw out a bucket of burning hot kerosene out the door (window?) as her mom is walking in. And CATCHES HER MOTHER ON FIRE, as her mother burns-up she tries to stop the fire with her hands effectively burning them (so, yeah, she can't play the piano, not depressing at all.) Oh, oh, it gets better, her mom is also pregnant so Billie Jo also is responsible for killing her baby brother. The dad's ecstatic right now people, just peachy. I'm not even sure if I read the rest of the book. What I do know is that it put me into a deep state of depression. I cannot understand the 3, 4 and 5 (???) star reviews on this book. Are these people serious???
23 reviews3 followers
May 21, 2008
This book is set in the Oklahoma panhandle during the 1930's. Preteen Bille Jo and her family struggle to cope with the loss of their farm, scarcity of food, and the endless swirling dust storms that dominate life in this setting. Then tragedy strikes; Billie Jo's mother and baby brother are killed in a sudden accident and Billie Jo's hands are seriously burned. Billie Jo's father withdraws into grief and depression while Billie Jo wrestles with her own guilt and physical disability. Ultimately, Billie Jo discovers her deep love for her father and recognizes that she has the strength of character she needs to cope with all of life's difficulies.

The book is written in free verse and vividly describes the despair and loss of Dust Bowl farmers. From this perspective it is a good historical piece. In my opinion, the grief and despair of this story outweigh the redemption, and the story leaves teens little to hope in. The resolution - that Billie Jo loves her father and is able to cope through her own strength - is unsatisfying in my mind. This is one book I would not choose to study with my middle schoolers.
Profile Image for Bish Denham.
Author 7 books36 followers
February 8, 2015
Tough read. But then the Dust Bowl was a tough time to live through. Moments in this story are very dark and depressing. But then the Dust Bowl was a dark depressing time. Through most of it I felt like I was eating dust. But then people who lived through the Dust Bowl really did eat dust. At least I only had to eat it while I read the story. Those who lived through it couldn't get away from it. Dust was their constant unconquerable bane and companion.

What I think this story is really about is the tenacity of the human spirit to survive. No matter what nature or life throws at us, some of us will continue to live. And out of that survival, out of the dust, those of us who remain will grow and flourish and plant anew.

This is a beautiful story about sorrow and struggle and determination. If your heart is too tender, be aware.
2 reviews1 follower
November 14, 2019
It was unexpected but I really enjoyed this book. The format was surprisingly engaging and conjured so much emotion in so few words.
Profile Image for Donna.
208 reviews
January 13, 2008
Very interesting story set in mid-1930s Oklahoma during the times of the “Dust Bowl,” a continuous series of dust storms that rolled across the prairies, leaving ruined crops, ruined people, and ruined families in their wake. The book is written as a sequential series of free-verse poetry, individual poems with individual titles that describe the days of 16-year-old Billie Jo, who loves school and playing the piano. And then, even worse than the dust, Billie Jo’s mother, heavily pregnant, suffers a horrendous accident.

W A R N I N G - - - S P O I L E R S

The description of Ma’s heart-rending accident took me by surprise:

The Accident

I got

put a pail of kerosene
next to the stove
and Ma,
fixing breakfast,
thinking the pail was
filled with water,
lifted it,
to make Daddy’s coffee,
poured it,
but instead of making coffee,
Ma made a rope of fire.
It rose up from the stove
to the pail
and the kerosene burst
into flames

Ma ran across the kitchen,
out the porch door,
screaming for Daddy.
I tore after her,
thinking of the burning pail
left behind in the bone-dry kitchen,
I flew back and grabbed it,
throwing it out the door.

I didn’t know.
I didn’t know Ma was coming back.

The flaming oil
onto her apron,
and Ma,
suddenly Ma,
was a column of fire.
I pushed her to the ground.
desperate to save her,
desperate to save the baby, I
beating out the flames with my hands.
I did the best I could.
But it was no good.
[p. 60]

….and then this….

A Tent of Pain

has made a tent out of the sheet over Ma
so nothing will touch her skin,
what skin she has left.
I can’t look at her,
I can’t recognize her.
She smells like scorched meat.
Her body groaning there,
it looks nothing like my ma.
It doesn’t even have a face.

Daddy brings her water,
and drips it inside the slit of her mouth
by squeezing a cloth.
She can’t open her eyes,
she cries out
when the baby moves inside her,
otherwise she moans,
day and night.
I wish the dust would plug my ears
so I couldn’t hear her.
[p. 66]

Hesse does a magnificent job of describing the relentless nature of the dust storms, one after another, pierced between by tiny hopes for rain, and the utter helplessness of those who depended on the land to earn their living. I had no idea that the wind-blown dust could accumulate in “drifts,” even throughout the house.

piles up like snow
across the prairie,
dunes leaning against fences,
mountains of dust pushing over barns.
[p. 102]

Billie Jo and her father are left to manage as best they can amongst the grief and the dust, the heartache, the guilt, and the desperation that permeate their lives, and we learn how they eventually reach a place of forgiveness. A heartbreakingly beautiful story.

This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
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