What is the irony in Arley Wanderdale's name in Karen Hesse's Out Of The Dust?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Karen Hesse's book Out of the Dust, Arley Wanderdale's name symbolizes wandering over hills and dales, meaning broad valleys. Yet, though he does do his share of wandering in the story, he is actually one of the more firmly rooted characters, making his name a bit ironic. In contrast to Wanderdale, the protagonist Billie Jo Kelby, who absolutely worships Wanderdale and feels inspired by him, does far more wandering than Wanderdale, adding to the irony of his name.

Arley Wanderdale is a musician who teaches music weekly at Billie Jo's school in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Wanderdale also admires Billie Jo's piano playing abilities and invites her to perform frequently. One summer, he even invites her to travel out on the road with him and the Black Mesa Boys, playing in Keyes, Goodwell, and Texhoma for pay. Wanderdale's encouragement of Billie Jo's talents can be seen as one of the few stable and beneficial things she has in her life during the terrible Dust Bowl.

Even when Billie Jo's hands are badly burned from an accident she has involving kerosene that led to both her mother's and newborn baby brother's deaths, Wanderdale remains a steady source of encouragement in her life. In fact, Wanderdale is the only one in the town who talks about her damaged hands, encouraging her that her damaged hands "could play again, / if [she] would only try" (p. 88). At first, she does try and plays several performances, but eventually, her hands simply hurt so much that she has to give up. It was at a show of his that she describes herself as having played "like a cripple" (p. 136). At that point, he finally yields and decides not "to ask [her to play] again" (p. 136). Nevertheless, up until the point that it became evident it was far too painful for her to continue playing, he remained a steady source of encouragement in her life and even continued to remain a source of inspiration in her life, showing us that Wanderdale didn't ever truly do any wandering; he was instead one of the most firmly grounded characters in the book, making his name ironic.

In contrast, Billie Jo decides she simply cannot bare suffering in the dust any longer and hitches a ride on a train heading towards California. However, she only makes it as far as Arizona before deciding that leaving only made her feel lonelier and that she can't truly abandon her father. She immediately catches the next train back. Regardless, her attempt to leave shows that Billie Jo is the true wanderer in the story as opposed to Wanderdale, which further illustrates the irony of his name.

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Out of the Dust

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