Karen Hesse,
Out of the Dust
(Apple Signature, 1997)

Out of the Dust is a courageous novel, both in subject matter and form. Karen Hesse uses a series of blank verse poems to tell the story of Billy Jo, a young girl growing up during the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma.

Billy Jo loves to play the piano and dreams of her music someday taking her out of the dust and drought of Oklahoma. Her mother, pregnant (with what Daddy hopes is the baby boy he wanted from the start), discourages Billy Jo's notions. However, Billy Jo's dreams are ruined one terrible day when a pail of kerosene next to the stove catches fire. Ma runs from the house and Billy Jo, not realizing that Ma has turned around to come back inside, throws the flaming pail of kerosene out the door. Ma is immediately covered in flames, and Billy Jo desperately tries to smother the flames with her own hands. Days later, Ma dies while giving birth to the baby, who was to be adopted by an aunt but dies before she arrives.

Billy Jo struggles to deal with the results of the accident -- her feeling that it was her fault, her inability to play the piano because of her burned hands, and the extra work she must do around the farm because of the drought and dust storms. Billy Jo's pain is evident and heartbreaking; the stark beauty of everyday language complements the spare lines of blank verse. Hesse crafts a strong heroine full of spunk and heart, while at the same time expertly balancing the despair and hope of historical Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Out of the Dust moves through the grittiness of loss and despair to the budding shoots of hope, all in the voice of one strong and remarkable young girl. Hesse's inventiveness with form gives the novel a simple, austere beauty that is at once achingly familiar and strange.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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