Out of the Dust

by Karen Hesse

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Did Billie Jo's mother die in Out of the Dust?

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Billy Jo's mother did indeed die. In the section entitled "Devoured," dated August 1934, Billy Jo wrote,

"Ma died that day

giving birth to my brother."

Ma had been burned in a terrible accident, which is described in a previous section written in July 1934. Daddy had put a pail of kerosene near the stove, and Ma, thinking it was water, reached for it, pouring the contents into a pot on the stove where she was making coffee. The kerosene ignited, making "a rope of fire," and as Ma ran outside, the entire pail burst into flames. Thinking to help, Billy Jo grabbed the pail and threw its fiery contents out the door, not realizing that Ma was returning to the house just at that moment. Ma was doused with the flaming kerosene, and Billy Jo tried desperately to put out the flames with her hands.

There was no sophisticated care for burn victims in those days. Daddy and Doc Rice could do no more than lay Ma in bed with a sheet made into a tent over her so that it would not touch her scorched skin. Due to deliver her baby at any time, Ma lay in agony for days, and her family could do little for her other than try to squeeze a little water between her parched lips to ease her thirst. Unable to handle the situation, Daddy took the little money they had saved and went out and got drunk, leaving Billie Jo to tend to her mother as best she could. When the baby came, Doc Rice was there to deliver him, but Ma died in childbirth, and the baby died soon after.

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