Out of the Dust

Out of the Dust
Out of the Dust  
KarenHesse OutOfTheDust.jpg
First edition cover
Author(s) Karen Hesse
Illustrator Daniel Mullins
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Historical Fiction
Publisher Scholastic Press
Publication date 1997
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 227 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN ISBN 0-590-36080-9 (first edition, hardback)
OCLC Number 36123638
LC Classification PZ7.H4364 Ou 1997

Out of the Dust is a verse novel written by Karen Hesse. It was the winner of the Newbery Medal in 1998, Scott O'Dell Award, an ALA Notable Children's Book, an ALA "Best book", a School Library Journal "best book of the year", a Booklist "Editors' Choice" award, a Book Links "Lasting Connection", a Publishers Weekly "best book of the year", and a New York Public Library "100 Titles for Reading and Sharing" selection.

Set in Oklahoma during the years 1934-1935, this book tells the story of a family of farmers during the Dust Bowl years. Billie Jo being the main character, it goes into her own life and struggles. The structure of the novel is unusual in that the plot is advanced entirely through a series of free verse poems.

Plot summary

Billie Jo Kelby, the main character, is described in the opening of the book as long-legged girl, thin and red-headed just like her father (she calls him Daddy). She was expected to be a boy, and her parents had named her so only to be surprised with a baby girl, hence the masculine name. She has a hunger for piano playing and a taste for apples.

Billie Joe tells on how she knows her father wants to have a son instead of a daughter, but how he still loves her anyway. The opening of the book also describes the dust storms causing trouble on farms, Mad Dog Craddock who is a boy who Billie Jo has feelings for and academically rivals.

One day while Billie Jo's pregnant mother is making breakfast, her father leaves a can of kerosene next to the stove and then goes out into the fields. Her mother picks up the can, mistakenly thinking it is water and makes "a rope of fire". Screaming to her husband, Billie Jo's mother runs out to the fields, with Billie Jo behind her. Thinking the house may catch on fire, Billie Jo runs back inside and throws the can of kerosene out the door. Unfortunately, her mother is running back to the house, and Billie Jo ends up throwing the can of kerosene onto her mother, lighting her on fire. Billie Jo runs outside and began to beat the flames on her mother with her hands in an attempt to save both her mother and unborn brother. Her mother is taken inside and treated, but she never again looks like "Ma" to Billie Jo. Billie Jo cannot recognize her mother through the burns. Her own hands are badly burned as well, swollen and dripping pus. One night, Billie Jo's father takes the money allocated to pay for the hospital bills and gets drunk. Billie Jo is left trying to give water to her injured mother.

A few days later, Billie Jo's mother dies while giving birth to her son. The baby is delivered and lives for a few moments, until he too is pronounced dead. Buried on top of a hill, Billie Jo names him Franklin because Billie Jo's father cannot speak. She says she named him after our president.

Billie Jo and her father begin to drift apart from each other. Billie Jo becomes upset because the conditions of her hands prevent her from playing the piano. She also notices spots on her father's face, that are similar to the spots that her grandfather had when he had skin cancer. Billie Jo becomes desperate to get out of the dust and gets up and leaves one night with only a handful of biscuits.

She hitchhikes on a train and a homeless and smelly man comes up to her. Billie Jo talks to him for a while and he shows her a picture of his family, before she falls asleep. She awakens to find that her food is gone, but the picture that the man had of his family is left its place. It is here she learns of her sense of belonging and all becomes clear to her.

After a week, Billie Jo returns home and convinces her father to go see a doctor. She calls him "Daddy" for the first time since the "accident" leading to her mother's death. The two even start to gain each other's trust again. She then meets Louise, a woman who stayed with her father while Billie was on the run. Louise,a woman who fell in the big hurt of her fathers eyes. Billie Jo respects Louise because Louise knows how to cope with "two red heads" and not "step on the toes of a ghost". Billie Jo and Louise just talk, and her father eventually ends up marrying Louise.

The novel ends with Billie Jo describing her life as not the best, but she is happy about the departure of the dust storms and her father being happy and alive. She just might stay out of the dust after all.

Awards and nominations

Preceded by
The View from Saturday
Newbery Medal recipient
Succeeded by

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