Reviews for Out of the Dust


The Book Report Reviews 1997 November-December
Sparse, poignant, painful, and touching, Out of the Dust evokes photographic-clear images of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, told from the perspective of 13-year-old Billie Jo. Beginning with her birth in 1920, and jumping quickly to the winter of 1934, Billie tells, with simple understatement, the story of her family's bitter struggle to survive the unrelenting dust and drought. She catches the reader off-guard as she tells of the horrible day when her father left a pail of kerosene by the stove, and her mother accidentally poured it on the fire. Billie Jo, trying to help, threw the burning kerosene outside the door, not knowing that her mother was coming back inside. The "flaming oil" turned her mother into a "column of fire," and she, as well as her unborn child, died a month later. Billie is left with her father, haunted by guilt and grief; her burnt, raw hands, now screaming with pain when she tries to play the piano which soothes her soul; and a dust storm that chokes the crops, livestock, and even causes death. An aborted attempt to run away brings Billie to the realization that there is nothing better than what she already has, causing her to return to her father, to her home, and, eventually, to find forgiveness for herself and her father. While billed as a novel and clearly a narrative, the entire book is formatted in prose-like free verse poetry structure, which enhances the accessibility, the clarity, and haunting nature of its storyline. Targeted toward junior high students, the book would be a wonderful addition to any supplemental reading list about the Dust Bowl, and could also be useful as a model of the close link between poetry and prose; as a coming-of-age story; and as a novel to be read solely for its own merit. Out of the Dust should not stay on any shelf long enough to gather dust. Highly Recommended. Brooke Selby Dillon, English & Reading Teacher, Tahoma Senior High School, Kent, Washington © 1997 Linworth Publishing, Inc.

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Booklist Monthly Selections - #1 October 1997
/*Starred Review*/ Gr. 6^-9. "Daddy came in, / he sat across from Ma and blew his nose. / Mud streamed out. / He coughed and spit out / mud. / If he had cried, / his tears would have been mud too, / but he didn't cry. / And neither did Ma." This is life in the Oklahoma dust bowl in the mid-1930s. Billie Jo and her parents barely eke out a living from the land, as her father refuses to plant anything but wheat, and the winds and dust destroy the crop time after time. Playing the piano provides some solace, but there is no comfort to be had once Billie Jo's pregnant mother mistakes a bucket of kerosene for a bucket of water and dies, leaving a husband who withdraws even further and an adolescent daughter with terribly burned hands. The story is bleak, but Hesse's writing transcends the gloom and transforms it into a powerfully compelling tale of a girl with enormous strength, courage, and love. The entire novel is written in very readable blank verse, a superb choice for bringing out the exquisite agony and delight to be found in such a difficult period lived by such a vibrant character. It also spares the reader the trouble of wading through pages of distressing text, distilling all the experiences into brief, acutely observed phrases. This is an excellent book for discussion, and many of the poems stand alone sufficiently to be used as powerful supplements to a history lesson. ((Reviewed October 1, 1997)) Copyright 2000 Booklist Reviews

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Horn Book Guide Reviews 1998
In first-person free-verse poems fourteen-year-old Billie Jo Kelby relates her Depression-era experiences in the Oklahoma panhandle. Billie Jo's aborted escape from the dust bowl almost gets lost in a procession of bleak events, instead of serving as the book's climax. Yet her voice, nearly every word informed by longing, provides an immediacy that expressively depicts both a grim historical era and one family's healing. Copyright 1998 Horn Book Guide Reviews

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Horn Book Magazine Reviews 1998 #1
Prairie winds dark with dust blow through this novel-turning suppers gritty, burying tractors, and scouring lungs. Even the pages of the book, composed solely of first-person, free-verse poems, have a windswept appearance as fourteen-year-old Billie Jo Kelby relates her Depression-era experiences in the Oklahoma panhandle: "We haven't had a good crop in three years, / not since the bounty of '31, / and we're all whittled down to the bone these days." Billie Jo's world is further devastated when a kitchen fire causes the deaths of her mother and newborn brother and severely injures her hands, stalling the fledgling pianist's dream of a music career. A few of the poems are pretentious in tone or facile in execution, and some of the longer, narrative-driven pieces strain at the free verse structure, but the distinctive writing style is nonetheless remarkably successful. Filled with memorable images-such as Billie Jo's glimpse of her pregnant mother bathing outdoors in a drizzle-the spare verses showcase the poetry of everyday language; the pauses between line breaks speak eloquently, if sometimes melodramatically. The focus of the entire book is not quite as concise. As tragedies pile up over the two-year timeline (a plague of grasshoppers descends, starving cattle need to be shot, Billie Jo's father develops skin cancer), the pace becomes slightly numbing. Billie Jo's aborted escape from the dust bowl almost gets lost in the procession of bleak events, instead of serving as the book's climax. Yet her voice, nearly every word informed by longing, provides an immediacy that expressively depicts both a grim historical era and one family's healing. peter d. sieruta Copyright 1999 Horn Book Magazine Reviews

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 1997 August #4
This intimate novel, written in stanza form, poetically conveys the heat, dust and wind of Oklahoma along with the discontent of narrator Billy Jo, a talented pianist growing up during the Depression. Unlike her father, who refuses to abandon his failing farm ("He and the land have a hold on each other"), Billy Jo is eager to "walk my way West/ and make myself to home in that distant place/ of green vines and promise." She wants to become a professional musician and travel across the country. But those dreams end with a tragic fire that takes her mother's life and reduces her own hands to useless, "swollen lumps." Hesse's (The Music of Dolphins) spare prose adroitly traces Billy Jo's journey in and out of darkness. Hesse organizes the book like entries in a diary, chronologically by season. With each meticulously arranged entry she paints a vivid picture of Billy Jo's emotions, ranging from desolation ("I look at Joe and know our future is drying up/ and blowing away with the dust") to longing ("I have a hunger,/ for more than food./ I have a hunger/ bigger than Joyce City") to hope (the farmers, surveying their fields,/ nod their heads as/ the frail stalks revive,/ everyone, everything, grateful for this moment,/ free of the/ weight of dust"). Readers may find their own feelings swaying in beat with the heroine's shifting moods as she approaches her coming-of-age and a state of self-acceptance. Ages 11-13. (Oct.) Copyright 1998 Publishers Weekly Reviews

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School Library Journal Reviews 1997 September
In the midst of the Dust Bowl, 13-year-old Billie Jo loses her mother and unborn brother in an accident that she is partly responsible for and burns her own hands so badly that she may never again find solace in her only pleasure playing the piano. Growing ever more distant from her brooding father, she hops on a train going west, and discovers that there is no escaping the dust of her Oklahoma home she is part of it and it is part of her. Hesse uses free-verse poems to advance the plot, allowing the narrator to speak for herself much more eloquently than would be possible in standard prose. The author's astute and careful descriptions of life during the dust storms of the 1930s are grounded in harsh reality, yet are decidedly poetic; they will fascinate as well as horrify today's readers. Hesse deals with questions of loss, forgiveness, home, and even ecology by exposing and exploring Billie Jo's feelings of pain, longing, and occasional joy. Readers may at first balk at a work of fiction written as poetry, but the language, imagery, and rhythms are so immediate that after only a few pages it will seem natural to have the story related in verse. This book is a wonderful choice for classrooms involved in journal-writing assignments, since the poems often read like diary entries. It could also be performed effectively as readers' theater. Hesse's ever-growing skill as a writer willing to take chances with her form shines through superbly in her ability to take historical facts and weave them into the fictional story of a character young people will readily embrace. Copyright 1998 School Library Journal Reviews

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School Library Journal Reviews 1997 December
Gr 5 Up After facing loss after loss during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Billie Jo begins to reconstruct her life. A triumphant story, eloquently told through prose-poetry. (Sept.) Copyright 1998 School Library Journal Reviews

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VOYA Reviews 1998 April
Fourteen-year-old Billie Jo Kelby's story begins in the winter of 1934 in the Oklahoma Panhandle. In a series of evocative, free verse poems, Billie Jo helps us understand important moments and personal experiences within her family and community.Her poetic images and precise details reveal a community of caring people who share economic hardships with quiet dignity. Her love and respect for her Ma and Daddy are evident as she describes their determination to continue despite the dust stormsand drought destroying Daddy's wheat crop and Ma's garden. Though the dust invades every crevice of their lives, they ignore it setting the table with plates and glasses upside down, cleaning the piano keys so she and her Ma can enjoy their music,sweeping the dust aside. She adores her pregnant Ma, so thin and scrawny, and heeds her rules about chores and homework. Billie Jo's life is shattered in the summer of 1934 when Ma and the baby die in a kitchen fire. She and her father bottle their grief inside themselves. Billi Jo becomes an outsider in her community, as she focuses on death and destruction aroundher cows are shot, chickens are suffocated. Her grief and the dust are intertwined. In telling her story, Billie Jo learns about courage, truth, and sorrow; and, by the end of her story in the autumn of 1935, she learns that her anger at the dust storms that have torn at her heart and soul also have strengthened her spirit and willto survive. Billie Jo and Daddy realize they must continue as a family and that they have to forgive themselves. The dust storms, the drought, and the Depression cannot destroy what grows in the heart. This novel celebrates the tenacity of the human spirit. Teenagers can identify with Billie Jo's feelings and problems; they will enjoy reading and discussing the poems season by season as Billie Jo's story unfolds. The book could be used as acomplement to a social studies unit about the Depression or read aloud before a study of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, or used as a model for a poetry writing unit. A thoughtful and provocative book for classrooms and libraries. Sarah K. Herz.[Editor's Note: Out of the Dust is the recipient of the 1998 Newbery Medal and among 1998's ten Best of the Best Books for Young Adults.] Copyright 1998 Voya Reviews

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