|Robb's Rambling Reviews
Calling Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust just a novel about the Dust Bowl is akin to saying J.K. Rowling has had some success as a writer. Hesse’s novel is part history lesson, part coming of age, part self-reflective, and all poetry. Written in free verse, the poetry, written as diary entries, allows the author’s gift of language to shine. Hesse’s use of figurative language creates a stylistic masterpiece of modern young adult literature. Seen through the eyes of Billie Jo, the story’s thirteen year old narrator, we see firsthand the trials and heartaches she suffers as she comes to grips with the pains of growing up, the ravages of the Dust Bowl, and devastating personal losses as well. “She was like tumbleweed” Billie Jo says of her mother, “holding on for as long as she could, then blowing away with the wind.” Hesse’s use of language is so precise and direct, that at times readers may feel as though they are intruding on her grief, while other times her lyrical writing engulfs readers, blanketing them in much the same way as the Oklahoma dust is poisoning Billie Jo herself.
Hesse has a gift for knowing what to say, undoubtedly, but she also has a gift for knowing what not to say. Understatement, something not seen frequently in juvenile literature, allows the reader to play a part in the drama, without simply being led to the story’s end. Becoming an active participant in Billie Jo’s life allows readers to become more deeply involved in her struggles, to empathize more readily, and to understand other characters by making personal connections on their own. "In the kitchen she is my ma,” she says “in the barn and the fields she is my daddy's wife, but in the parlor Ma is something different." As readers we dig deeper, desiring to have the same connections to the characters as Billie Jo does.
Far from being a lighthearted read, Out of the Dust is driven by Hesse's impressive use tension. Hesse’s writing at times become so taught, that the strain can be unbearable. More than once I had to remind myself to breathe, this is fiction after all. But that is the hallmark of good realistic fiction, isn’t it? Forgetting where that line of realism crosses over into fiction and simply getting so caught up in the moment that you forget everything, except what is on the page in front of you.
Three of my grandparents grew up in the United States during the Great Depression. Without a doubt it made them who they were. Never knowing what the next day might bring, living in times no one really understood. Luckily, my grandparents were farmers with sizeable farms and plenty of animals. My family never went hungry, but clothes and such were always at a premium. My grandmother was always a saver after that, saying that if you got rid of something, you may never have another one. Hesse’s work is full of lessons; Lessons of nature, lessons of family, lessons of loss, lessons of forgiveness and lessons of self-worth. As humans we rarely seek these lessons ourselves. They seek us, for better or worse. It is in accepting them and being willing to grow from them that we mature and find our true selves. Hesse understands this. Out of the Dust is her gift to us. A gift which helps us explore what it means to be human, to live, to lose, and to love. I for one am grateful for the gift, this work of art, and will treasure it and hopefully become a better person in the process.
Out of the Dust is deceiving. On the outside a seeming innocuous book about the Great Depression, but on the inside so much more. Hesse’s tale of hardship and loss set against the background of the Dust Bowl takes on a life of its own due to her exceptional talents. She is able to mold language in a way that we become lost within its pages, not wanting to climb out. Whether it is her keen use of figurative language, her use of tension to create mood within each entry, or simply knowing what to leave out when saying less is really saying more, it is no wonder Out of the Dust is a Newbery Award winner. Hesse would make John Newberry himself proud.
Citation: Hesse, K. (1997). Out of the dust. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.