When drought struck the central United States in the 1930s, it turned the entire region into a barren, dust-covered, poverty-stricken Dust Bowl where people had to fight to survive. Karen Hesse's poetic novel Out of the Dust paints an accurate picture of what life was like in the Dust Bowl during this period.
First, and most obviously, there was dust everywhere. Since rain was rare, the ground dried out. It finally became so dry that when any moisture fell at all, it hardly made a difference, either soaking straight in or sliding right off the parched soil. At one point, Billie Jo notes, seventy days passed before any rain fell at all. She describes how the dust would surround the family. They breathed it, slept with it, ate it. It covered every surface in the house. Then the wind would pick up and grab the dry soil and blow it everywhere. It created a “sea of dust.” No one could keep it out.
The drought and the dust killed farmers' crops and animals. With no rain, crops couldn't grow. By 1934, Billie Jo's father had already lost three wheat crops through lack of rain. The plants simply withered up and blew away. Yet Billie Jo's father is stubborn. When her mother suggests they try another crop, he insists that “it has to be wheat.” But he cannot grow any. The land will simply not cooperate any more. Further, without water and grain, the animals die. They cannot get enough nutrition, but they are also suffocated by the dust. The mud gets into their lungs, and they are so thin and weak anyway that they die.
With the loss of their crops and animals, the people of the Dust Bowl region were literally dirt poor. Food was scarce. Money was almost non-existent. Billie Jo's family and neighbors learned to survive on next to nothing, yet they shared with each other the little they had. Government assistance programs helped some but not a lot. Yet people continued to make music and put on shows and gather as a community to keep their spirits up. While some people left their homes, migrating west to try to find work, many, like Billie Jo's family, remained on their land, surviving as best they could and hoping for better days.