Hesse, K. (1997). Out of the Dust. New York: Scholastic Press.
This book is being read in several schools and I thought I'd give it a review albeit from a parent/teacher perspective. This book is appropriate for adult reading.
When I first looked over this book I sighed. It didn’t look very interesting and I wasn’t happy about reading it. But, as I sat in my living room reading verse after verse I found myself slowly becoming engrossed. I started hoping along with Billie Jo that the rain would come. I wondered how they would feed the baby. Then, I encountered the most devastating poem in the whole book on page 71. It is impossible not to want to reach out and help Billie Jo after that poem. The section says:
“Billie Jo threw the pail,”
they said. “An accident,”
Under their words a finger pointed.
Out of the Dust is a narrative poem. It packs a huge emotional punch. This is not a lighthearted read. The story is written using a series of linked poems. Some elements of concrete poetry are also found within the book. For example the typing style of the poem “On Stage” on page 13 clearly gives the reader the feeling of playing the piano. The author also manages to capture the distinct and depressing imagery of the time period. Sensory lines such as “The sky turned from blue to black, night descended in an instant and the dust was on us” capture both the hopelessness of Billie Jo and the feeling of the dust storm at the same time. Dust seems to creep up in many of the poems. Karen Hesse keeps the reader in the dust bowl with metaphors like “Ma had been tumbleweed too, holding on for as long as she could, then blowing away on the wind” found on page 202.
I’m not sure this novel is appropriate for younger children, but it would be suitable for middle school. I think it would be best served to be read at a time when students are discussing that historical period so that they know why the dust was there and the historical significance of what this young girl is writing about. The book wasn’t very cheery. Even though at the end there is a glimmer of hope that things will be better, it is hard to imagine another dust storm won’t come around and ruin everything again. After reading this book, I immediately read some humorous poetry to cheer myself up. It is a wonderfully well-written book. It deserved the award it received.