Thursday, April 24, 2008

Out of the Dust Bowl: Book Review

Title: Out of the Dust
Author: Karen Hesse
Hardcover: 227 pages
Ages: 9 and older
Publisher: Scholastic Press
First Edition: October 1997

Out of the Dust is a riveting, evocative and mournful story of depression. Karen Hesse’s novel narrows the focus of the catastrophic Dust Bowl in the Southwest during the 1930’s to a single family living in Oklahoma. Through a series of free verse poems the forlorn voice of fourteen-year-old Billie Jo Kelby takes the reader through grim domestic realities and constant dust storms. However Billie Jo still has dreams of a future.

On the Road with Arley

Here’s the way I figure it.
My place in the world is at the piano.
I’m earning a little money playing,
thanks to Arley Wanderdale.
……And every little crowd
is grateful to hear a rag or two played
on the piano
by a long-legged, red-haired girl,

even when the piano has a few keys soured by dust.

The starkness of Billie Jo’s circumstances immerses the reader deep into a first hand account of the Depression. On each page you will find yourself completely absorbed in the daily struggle for survival. Hesse's voice espouses realism on every page and you can almost taste the grit and dust in your own teeth.

Rules of Dining

We shake out our napkins,
spread them on our laps,
and flip over our glasses and plates,
exposing neat circles,
round comments

on what life would be without dust.

This book does not provide background or history on any of the characters or events like straight prose might require. Therefore some middle grade children may have trouble understanding the depth and meaning of some of the verses. However, Hesse’s words are so powerful that you can see and feel the history and in some cases desperation in words like;

“As summer wheat came ripe,
so did I,
born on the kitchen floor. Ma crouched,
barefoot, bare bottomed
over the swept boards
because that is where daddy said it’d be best.”

You meet families migrating to California only to find things are just as bad there. Not enough jobs. The amount of dust that Billie Jo and her family endure on a daily basis is overwhelming and mind boggling. Dust clogs the tractor motor, ruins the wheat crop, creeps into the bed sheets and ruins Billie Jo’s precious piano. It rings true that Billie Joe and her family eats sleeps and drinks dust.

Blankets of Black

We watched as the storm swallowed the light.
The sky turned from blue
to black,
night descended in an instant

and the dust was on us

I was moved emotionally by Hesse’s free standing verse. Each poem is a work of art giving the people of Billie Jo's small Oklahoma town depth and purpose.

Karen Hesse won the 1998 Newbery Award for this elegantly crafted and powerfully effective novel. She is also the Newbery Medal winning author of ten books for children. Among them is The Music of Dolphins, which was named a Best Book of 1996.

Write it down,



  1. Carma,
    Out of the Dust is one of my all-time favorite books. Karen Hesse is a master writer. And the subject of the book is very close to home, since I was a child of the great plains where the Dust Bowl swept away many dreams and tested the resolve of all.

    Thanks for your beautiful review of this story.


  2. Carma,

    I love this book. Karen Hesse paints such vivid descriptions of the dust bowl during the depression that I could almost "feel" the gritty dust in my mouth and on my clothes.

    It's an amazing book. Great review, Carma.

    Suzanne Lieurance
    The Working Writer's Coach
    "When Your Pen Won't Budge, Read The Morning Nudge"

  3. Thanks Cynthia. When I first saw that it was written in free verse I wasn't sure if I would like it. But as you say Hesse is a master writer and her words evoke such passion. I am definitely a fan of hers now.

  4. Hi Suzanne, it was the vivd descriptions by Hesse that drew me in to her story. I felt as if I was really experiencing the emotions of the main character.