As we follow the trials and struggles of Billie Jo Kelby in Karen Hesse's poetic novel Out of the Dust, we might well decide that this characters has one of the worse runs of bad luck ever. She's only fourteen years old at the beginning of the story, but she has already experienced the poverty of the Great Depression, the near despair of life in the dust bowl of Oklahoma, and the sorrow of losing loved ones, including her grandparents and several unborn siblings.
Billie Jo has few delights in her dusty, sad world, but she loves playing the piano, and she's good at it. She even performs with a local group for shows and dances, getting paid a little but especially relishing in the music, which takes her away from her life and immerses her in beauty and happiness. Even when the wind picks up and blows down the wheat, smothering the crop in dust, Billie Jo copes through her music. Even when the wind and the dust harm the apple trees, Billie Jo throws herself into her music.
Then one day, Billie Jo's father leaves a pail of kerosene beside the stove. Her mother, thinking it's water, pours it and starts a fire. Billie Jo and her mother are both seriously burned, Billie Jo on the hands. Her mother dies a short time later, after giving birth to a baby boy who also passes away.
Billie Jo can no longer play the piano with her burned, swollen, painful hands. She can no longer rely on her music to help her endure the sorrows and hardships of her life. She has no way to manage the grief and guilt of her mother's death other than just putting one foot in front of another and marching on. When her father drinks and turns in upon himself to try to deal with his grief, Billie Jo must do her best to help him and herself. When the grasshoppers destroy the apple trees, Billie Joe can do nothing to stop them. Yet she endures. She does not give up. Her sufferings actually make her stronger, even without her music and even though she doesn't realize it herself.
As the months pass, life does not get any easier for Billie Jo and her father. The dust storms continue to strike. The pain in her hands continues to torment her. Her father's distance continues to make her feel as though she were all alone in the world. Her grief over the death of her mother and brother stays with her nearly every moment.
But even in the midst of all this, Billie Jo finds some small consolations. The art exhibit provides her with a taste of beauty, as does the President's Birthday Ball. She joins her classmates in preparing meals for the whole school out of generously donated food, and she realizes that people do indeed care for one another. Her class adopts a homeless family who lives at the school for a while, and Billie Jo gives her brother's little clothing to the family's new baby. Billie Jo even begins to reclaim her music, winning third place at a talent show despite the pain in her hands, but she soon gives up her playing again because she feels that she "plays like a cripple" (135).
In the summer of 1935, after another severe dust storm and the disappointment of not being able to play at graduation and still feeling alienated from her father, Billie Jo decides to leave, to go west, to see something new and find something fresh for herself. She jumps a train and heads out. But she doesn't find anything new. She finds the same pain she left behind in a hobo who shares her boxcar. Billie Jo learns an important lesson. Life is hard no matter where a person is, and running away helps nothing. Billie Jo goes home.
Father and daughter start new when they meet at the train station. They talk together, really talk, for the first time. Gradually, Billie Jo begins strengthening her hands by using and exercising them. A woman named Louise enters the lives of Billie Jo and her father, not pushing, not demanding, simply fitting in quietly and gradually, guiding Billie Jo and helping her father find himself again. Then, finally, Billie Jo returns to her music, and she no longer feels like she must "get out of the dust" (222). She can stay right where she is and be happy even in the most difficult times. Indeed, Billie Jo is growing up, and she has come a long way.