Once upon a time, thirteen-year-old Billie Jo had talent as a pianist. Once upon a time, the family farm provided for their needs. Now, the crops have failed, the government has stepped in to “help,” her mother is dead, and her hands are burned, almost useless. Billie Jo can’t forgive herself, nor can she forgive her dad for his seeming apathy in the midst of their tragedies. She runs away.
Set in 1934 Oklahoma, Out of the Dust inspires its readers with the indomitable human spirit in the midst of tragedy. Billie Jo and her father heal over a period of almost two years, and she learns the meaning of home, however imperfect.
The story is written in free verse, something I normally wouldn’t care for, but in this novel, it works. The depth of Billie Jo’s hurt is told in a matter-of-fact style, an anecdote here, a wistful little episode there. Both story and form earned Karen Hesse the 1998 Newbery Medal.
- The details provide an excellent sense of daily history during the Great Depression.
- By the end of the story, Billie Jo (and the reader) are left with a sense of hope. Life has its seasons. She survived the worst she’s ever known, and it looks like a season of blessing is heading her way.
- This story is marketed toward children eleven to thirteen years old. I’d raise the age by another year. Fifth-graders may have a hard time with the graphic word pictures of Billie Jo’s burned hands and the burns that her mother didn’t survive.
- While I enjoyed the free verse style, others may not.
- Discussion Questions
- Because of the Great Depression, many people who had made a good living on their farms became poor. What are some of the ways people reacted to the changes in their lives?
- The fire was an accident. Why did Billie Jo feel guilty?
- Why did Billie Jo run away from home?
- Do you think Billie Jo will be happy with her new stepmother?