As to be expected for a story set during the dust bowl in Oklahoma during the Great Depression this story is dark and dreary. Even bordering on a gruesome quality that, thankfully, the verse distracts us from. However, this is also a story of hope and human connection, making it also beautiful and heart wrenching.
Out of the Dust is a 1998 Newbery Medal-winning book written as a journal. Billie Jo is our narrator and she begins her entries in 1934. However, unlike most epistolary novels, narrative poetry is used to tell the story instead of the traditional prose, making this a verse novel. This is not something seen often in children’s literature but is common to the Classic epics such as Gilgamesh, the Illiad, and the Odyssey. Verse novels are often told with multiple narrators, yet again making Out of the Dust unique. We get to experience everything from Billie Jo’s perspective.
Billie Jo is the only daughter of a couple trying to survive in Oklahoma during the dust bowl. However, she suffers immensely as her family struggles to survive. The dust comes through repeatedly ravaging the farm, the land, and the people.
However, the gripping part of this story is the realism. Billie Jo is a realistic and relatable character. She struggles with loss and depression. She struggles to connect with the people around her, as most children going through puberty do. She loves music and plays the piano. She has crushes on boys. So, while the world around her might be swallowed in dust, Billie Jo still experiences life as a young girl should on many levels.
Author Karen Hesse does not sugarcoat life during the dust bowl; the narrator never tells less than the truth. Loss and suffering are difficult to explain to younger people. However, this novel allows children to relate to these concepts without directly experiencing them. Hesse also explores forgiveness deeply. Billie Jo and her father must come to terms with what happened in their lives, both of them blaming themselves and assuming they are blaming each other. We also explore what it means to have faith and believe in your roots. It’s important to never forget the importance of family. Billie Jo’s father will not give up on their land; he believes the land will come back and provide for them. It’s only together that Billie Jo and her family can survive the rough world of the Oklahoma dust bowl.
Out of the Dust also provides a clear picture of what happened historically during this time. Families struggled to scrape a living out of parched, drought-ridden fields where there isn’t enough food for themselves, let alone animals. The dust bowl was a hard time for the American farmer, and it is often pictured as a tiny blip in American history. I’m glad that we can introduce this era to children early with this book.
But once you get older, read The Grapes of Wrath.