Fourteen-year-old Billie Jo Kelby lives with her Pa, Bayard Kelby, and her Ma Polly, who is going to have a baby, near Joyce City in the Oklahoma panhandle during the dust bowl days of the Great Depression. Born in August of 1920, she begins her diary, written in free verse, in January of 1934 and covers the next two years of her life with a chronicle of her family's dreary existence including both her tragedies and triumphs. Her best friend Livie Killian moves with her family to California. The Kelby farm is failing, and all Billie Jo wants to do is to escape the dust that envelopes her. However, her Pa is determined to stick it out. Then a terrible accident transforms both her family and her life. But the one thing that might make things more bearable, playing the piano, seems impossible with her now scarred hands. How will she cope with all her difficulties?
Author Karen Hesse bases the picture drawn in this book, which won the 1998 Newbery Medal, on true stories which she read in an Oklahoma newspaper, the 1934 Boise City News. In her Newbery Acceptance Speech, Hesse said that the story "was about forgiveness." I found it interesting and informative, but the two biggest complaints which I have heard about the book are that it is boring and that it is depressing. I can understand how children who want only bang-bang, shoot-'em-up action books would find a simple account like this to be "boring," but then "boring," like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And yes, it is a bit "depressing," but then it is set in the "Depression," and there is a reason why this era was given that name. Out of the Dust does an excellent job of helping the reader to gain insight into the absolute poverty which many people of that day experienced. At the same time, I would not recommend it to a child who is actually dealing with the problem of depression.
Other than a couple of common euphemisms (i.e., "darn" and "heck"), there is no cursing or profanity. After the accident, Pa did take Ma's money to go out and get drunk, although he did not continue doing that, and one scene about making moonshine occurs, along with some references to dancing. Some sensitive youngsters may shrink from the description of "Grown men clubbing bunnies to death." And one day when it does rain, Billie Jo sees her pregnant mom out behind the barn "bare as a pear." Before anyone writes in to complain about my mentioning these things, I'm not saying that they make the book bad or that people shouldn't read it because of them. It's just that some parents want to know about such things ahead of time so that they can be prepared to discuss them with their children. The free verse used in the book is certainly different, but the sparseness of language emphasizes the sense of despair, yet with an underlying feeling of hope. My suggestion, especially for those who don't care for poetry, is to forget about trying to follow the free verse and just read the story as prose. That worked for me!show more
by Wayne S. Walker