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by Karen Hesse
Scholastic, Inc., 1997
Review by Jane Farist on Nov 19th 2003

Out of the Dust

As a novel, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse is somewhat unconventional as it is written in a combination diary-poetry form.  However, those with poem phobias should not be alarmed; each "diary entry" is written in free verse that is really quite easy to read.  The ease of reading, however, does not mean that the book is simplistic.  The relative paucity of words belies the powerful story that is contained in its pages.

Billie Jo Kelby is 14 years old and living with her mother and father during the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression in Oklahoma.  Even though times are hard, and the ever-present, pervasive dust is everywhere, Billie Jo's life isn't all that bad.  She has a passion and talent for "playing fierce piano", a talent that her mother has passed on to her.  And, after years of trying without success, her mother is expecting a baby – perhaps the son that her father wished for.  Then tragedy strikes, and Billie Jo must work her way out of the dust – the dust of grief, guilt, blame, and anger that are ever-present, pervasive and threaten to destroy the only thing Billie Jo has left – her relationship with her father.

In the aftermath of tragedy Billie Jo and her father plod through each day, barely talking or acknowledging the grief, guilt and pain they feel over their loss.  Dust storm after dust storm blows in and covers their home, their lives and their souls, until finally, Billie Jo can not bear to live in the dust anymore, and she leaves on a train in the night to get out of the dust that is choking her.

When she has been gone a few days she realizes she is more like her father, who is "like the sod" and less like her mother who "had been tumbleweed."  She knows then that she has to return.  And it is here, near the end, that the story of Billie Jo is most heartbreaking – and yet heart mending.  Everything is not set aright at once, but slowly, slowly, Billie Jo and her father begin to put the pieces of their lives back together, and with a little help from a kind woman, the both find their way out of the dust.

Karen Hesse has written a novel that is, at times, quite melancholy.  Readers may find themselves enveloped in the same dark, choking dust that settles over Billie Jo and her father.  And yet, throughout the book there is always a glimmer of hope, always a rain shower to wash away the dust, and make the reader realize that even in all this despair, renewed life and hope can be found.



© 2003 Jane Farist. All rights reserved.



After four years in the U.S. Navy and eight years as a 911 dispatcher and administrator, Jane Farist returned to college to complete her degree.  She is currently a junior at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia, majoring in Middle Grades Education, with a concentration in Language Arts and Social Studies.