Book: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
“And I know now that all the time I was trying to get
out of the dust,
the fact is,
what I am,
I am because of the dust.
And what I am is good enough.
Even for me.”
In Out of the Dust, readers get to experience the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression through the eyes of fourteen year old Billie Jo. The novel is entirely in free verse poetry, which I believe helps capture the tone of the story. The words move like dust in the wind and have a powerfully smothering impact. Hesse buries you in images, and it feels incredible.
She starts the story with the background info that they are in Oklahoma, they’re in the midst of the Depression, and that dust storms are constantly plaguing the city. We learn that Ma is expecting a baby, and Billie Jo will be a big sister. Billie Jo explains how her Daddy wanted a boy but all he got was “a redheaded, heckle-faced, narrow-hipped girl with a fondness for apples and a hunger for playing fierce piano.” She loves her parents, and is excited for her new brother, Franklin, to be born.
However, tragedy strikes one day while Ma is cooking and a pail of kerosene near the stove catches fire. Ma runs for Daddy and Billie Jo, thinking to save the kitchen from burning down, flings the pail from the kitchen only to strike Ma and catch her on fire. While Ma survives the initial burn, she suffers a slow and agonizing death while Daddy hides in his alcohol. Ma and the baby both die, leaving Billie Jo and her father to fend for themselves and mend their broken hearts. Billie Jo suffers extreme burns on her hands from trying to stop Ma from burning, and as a result struggles to continue to play piano. She is no longer the fierce and incredible player she once was.
The book progresses through the events and stages of grief for Billie Jo and her father. She talks deeply about how the dust continues to smother whatever droplets of hope manage to appear before hope can fully take hold. She talks about how difficult it can be to let go of the past and force yourself to move forward for both her and her father. In the however, after trying to escape the dust she realizes it is a part of her that she can’t outrun and that she must learn to grown within it. She and her father reconcile, she begins to play piano again, and together they move forward into a new life.
This book has been a longstanding favorite of mine. I read it while I was living at Edwards AFB, CA where I was surrounded by nothing but dust and cactus. I found it was something I could easily connect to because I was also searching for a way to find a better life. I had big dreams and I was stuck in a small town. Looking back on it though, the desert had a unique beauty to it and it has become an integral part of me. This book also says a lot about hope and perseverance. It’s an excellent read of younger readers, because it is a short read but also quickly emphasizes what it means to keep going.
Beverage: Ma’s Apples
I know, I know. I’m slacking on the puns.
Tonight, I’m enjoying a Magner’s Apple Ale. Nothing like Ireland to scream “Dust Bowl” and “Great Depression.” I’m tying this directly to Billie Jo’s extreme love of apples and the significance of her mother’s apple trees. Billie Jo talks about how much Ma loved the apple trees and how those apples brought a little more life into their home.
The Apple Ale is sweet, like cold cider with a little bite to it to remind you that you’re an adult now. It’s a little like clinging to your childhood while knowing that things have changed and you too must move forward. It’s smooth and makes your lips tingle like apples that are just a hair tart.
Also, it’s got a 4.5% ABV, so the buzz is nice too.