Out of the Dust

by Karen Hesse

Scholastic, 1997

227 pages

I first read Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust several years ago (maybe around 2005?) and remembered it as an inspiring book, good fodder for Read Like a Girl. What I didn’t remember is that it’s also one of the rawest, heaviest books I’ve ever read.

If you have family members who came of age during the Depression, you know that it was the kind of event that induces a sort of national Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Depression generation is notorious for its reactionary frugality, and many members suffered long-term ill health as a result of Depression-era hardships.

In my family, my grandfather was known for his refusal to throw things away. He fed his hunting dogs off old tin pie plates and used fish heads for fertilizer; when it came to fancy occasions, he wore the same silk trousers and Chelsea boots for more than 60 years.

My grandmother was much the same. She liked to spend money more than my grandfather did, but she never got rid of anything. When she died (of skin cancer caused by her Depression-era work as a fruit-picker), she left behind two sheds full of clothing and household goods dating back to her teen years.

Out of the Dust is a brutally honest book that helps teens and tweens understand why the Depression left such an imprint on survivors. Through the voice of 14-year-old heroine Billie Jo, the book covers this period as a multi-faceted disaster: environmental, familial, economic.

Added to the national suffering is Billie Jo’s private agony. Her family’s Oklahoma wheat farm is on the verge of collapse; a horrifying accident has killed her mother and unborn brother and left Billie Jo badly burned; and her father, who never wanted a daughter in the first place (hence her masculine name), has checked out on her emotionally.

I told you it was raw and heavy. But my memory didn’t fail me completely–it is inspiring, too.

Billie Jo is perceptive, frank, and (most importantly) just hopeful enough. Without succumbing to destructive escapism, she keeps looking over the horizon, telling herself something better is coming, feeding her own hope bit by bit as rain slowly returns to the Dust Bowl.

When her need to find something new becomes unbearable, she has the courage to pursue it–but also to admit that a homecoming is what she really needs. Her initiative (and her absence) jolt her father into really connecting with her for the first time in her life, and through her encouragement he finds a way to heal.

This is a girl who simply won’t be destroyed by one of the most destructive set of circumstances our nation has ever known. She shows today’s girls that really living isn’t about ease, material abundance, or even the love others give you–it’s about being strong, clinging to what matters to you, and loving yourself.

And here’s a little bonus: the text itself is also inspiring. Hesse’s format–a story told through free-verse poems–isn’t just a parlor trick. The language is gritty, spare, and beautiful. Billie Jo’s no-nonsense temperament, tinged by her romantic love of music, comes through in every line.

It’s the perfect introduction to the idea that true art can take unexpected forms, that a writer (or painter, dancer, or actor) doesn’t have to create along the same lines as everyone else. This is the kind of novel that can open girls’ eyes and minds to new creative possibilities.

I’ll leave you with an a little story, to illustrate what I mean. I came into the living room the other day to find my daughter completely absorbed, Out of the Dust open in her lap. Forgetting that she is now a proficient reader who will attempt anything with a cover (especially when there is a child on it), I had left the book within easy reach. When I explained that it’s not appropriate for her now (she’s just six), but will be in a few years, she grudgingly handed it over.

“But, Mummy,” she said, “I love the poems. Can we please find another book with poems like these?”

That, my friends, is an inspired girl.

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