Out of the Dust

by Karen Hesse

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Themes and Characters

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There are so many themes that they best be lumped together as "the human heart in conflict with itself." The characters are easier to delineate. Fourteen year old Billie Jo Kelby is tall, lanky, and identifies with the color red. She was red when she came out of the womb and she has been red ever since: complexion, hair, identification with apples. She is her father's daughter through and through, and she doesn't especially like what she sees.

Her father, Bayard, is a one-dimensional prototype of the silent, dutiful husband who has little to say to anyone until the end of the story when he and Billie Jo recognize that if they are to survive they must put the past behind them, and the only way to accomplish that is to talk. Her mother Pol is better developed though still a prototype of the stoic, misplaced woman. Billie Jo describes her as "not much to look at: long and skinny with poor teeth and dirty hair." Although her mother's past is not revealed, Billie Jo intimates that her mother never envisioned that she would wind up in this no man's land with a non-communicative husband. The only point of tenderness between Bayard and Pol is when Pol plays the piano; she is an accomplished musician and when they were younger, Bayard loved to stand behind her and listen to her music. He had, in fact, bought a piano as his wedding gift to her, and Billie Jo says that his eyes grew soft, standing behind her while she played. Billie Jo has inherited her mother's love of the piano, and has attained a level of achievement herself as a vivacious performer.

Various other minor characters populate the novel, and one, Aunt Ellis who lives in Lubbock, is important because she is the one sure escape Billie Jo has from Joyce City. Mad Dog Craddock, who was given his name because he bit everybody and everything in sight when he was two years old, is the only person to successfully escape the repressive world of the Dust Bowl; he is a singer of some talent, and he secures a job as a radio performer in Amarillo. Billie Jo, like Mad Dog, might have been able to escape as well had her hands not been badly burned.

The abundant themes are easily listed and more difficult to explicate. Among them are the effects of the Depression on the human spirit; ambition; dreams; loss and gain; pain and guilt; forgiveness; nostalgia; compassion; responsibilities to others; courage; abandonment; acceptance of a step parent; and above all, death.

Billie Jo is accomplished: she is the top eighth grade student in the entire state of Oklahoma as determined by statewide tests, and she is an excellent entertainer with the piano, including musical arrangements and improvisations. She is confidant in her ability to perform and eager to take her talent public. Her mother is reluctant to allow Billie Jo to perform because, as Billie Jo analyzes it, "Maybe she's a little afraid of me going somewhere with the music she can't follow. Or of the music taking me so far away some day." Billie Jo clearly has a vision of life beyond the Dust Bowl, and the means to achieve it. She says,

And I think some day I'm going to
walk there [California] too,
through New Mexico and Arizona and
Some day I'll leave behind the wind,
and the dust
and walk my way West
and make myself to home in that distant
of green vines and promise.

Stoicism, or at least resignation, is...

(This entire section contains 2919 words.)

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almost a given condition for all the characters, but its virtues do constitute a minor theme. Billie Jo's mother has the most to be stoical about because she seems to have sacrificed the most. Bayard grew up on this land and would always be a part of it. Billie Jo, herself, is young and has the will and means to escape someday, but Pol finds herself at this end of the earth, married to an uncommunicative man, and at the mercy of nature. But in spite of her plight, she is resourceful and accepting of conditions beyond her control; she bears her life with grace and understanding.

Hesse takes a great leap of plotting and verisimilitude when she creates the terrible fire that burns Billie Jo and her mother, inextricably altering their lives; but having torched her characters, Hesse opens the way for the remainder of her many themes. Immediately, there is pain, both physical and the emotional anguish of what has happened. Billie Jo looks at her mother and says,

I can't recognize her.
She smells like scorched meat. . .
It doesn't even have a face.

For most of the novel following the accident, Billie Jo describes the physical pain she feels in her hands, but most especially the emotional pain of losing the talent that would have provided her exodus from the Dust Bowl. Her physical and emotional pain is real, not self-pity.

Once Billie Jo accepts the inevitability of her burned condition, the themes evolve to the questions of guilt, abandonment, and forgiveness. Bayard not only placed the bucket of kerosene beside the stove, but he also appropriated the family's savings to finance his drunken night in the pub as his wife was dying. In this respect, Hesse comes close to making Bayard a villain. Although Hesse based the incident of the kerosene accident of a real event documented in an Oklahoma newspaper, from the perspective of fiction, it is inconceivable that a seasoned farmer like Bayard would have brought kerosene into the house, much less left an open bucket near flames, unless he had malevolent intentions. He never explains, or apologizes for this action. But even if readers are willing to believe that leaving an open bucket of kerosene, which has a strong odor and could never be mistaken for water, was an oversight, his blazon abandonment of responsibility to his dying wife was a heinous act that Billie Jo quite rightly cannot understand or forgive. Neither can the reader quite accept why Billie Jo does not accept some of the responsibility herself since it was she, after all, who started the fire. After the newborn baby has died and the village women come to the house to help put things in order, Billie Jo tells us:

The women talked as they
scrubbed death from our house.
Stayed in my room
silent on the iron bed,
listening to their voices.

"Billie Jo threw the pail,"
they said. "An accident,"
they said.
Under their words a finger pointed.

They didn't talk
about my father leaving the kerosene
by the stove.
They didn't say a word about my
drinking himself
into a stupor
while Ma writhed, begging for water.
They only said,
Billie Jo threw the pail of kerosene.

Although Billie Jo is aware that other people hold her responsible, she does not accept her role and transfers her anger to her father. When she does begin to show signs of understanding him, she ruminates that she can "almost forgive him" for taking the money which he uses to get drunk, but that she can never forgive him for leaving the pail of kerosene by the stove. Why can't she unless she believes that he has intentionally attempted to maim and murder? The answer doesn't become clear until the end of the novel (in the chapter "Met") when they are walking together and she realizes that he has skin cancer which killed his father.

After the kerosene accident, Billie Jo's life is changed forever, and she realizes that she will never be able to escape her miserable life in the Dust Bowl through her piano entertainments. Nor in her heart does she believe, unlike her father, that the land will ever be restored to fecundity. He has destroyed her future and she can never forgive him for that. But as her anger and subconscious guilt turn to acceptance, and when she realizes that her rather may be subjecting himself to a slow, torturous death by cancer, perhaps as self punishment for his own guilt, she says

I am forgiving him, step by step,
for the pail of kerosene. As we walk
side by side,
in the sole-deep dust,
I am forgiving myself
for all the rest.

Forgiveness is seldom sincere and complete without compassion, which involves the process of self-absorption and identification with another being. Hesse makes the reader feel compassion for the characters; we identify with Billie Jo's self image; the loss of her friend Livie Killian; her attempt to make the most of her harsh conditions. She is a likeable character set in a time far removed from our own, and up to the point of the accident, we are cheering for her escape. After the accident we have great pity for her physical pain, loneliness, and isolation. [Hesse comes close to pushing the story into bathos (false pity) with the continuing dust storms, pestilence of locusts, short life of the cereus cactus, art show, second round of state tests, and Christmas dinner.] Hesse does not allow us at any point to falter in our compassion for Billie Jo. In contrast, Billie Jo must learn compassion for others, especially her father, before she can reclaim her own life.

An important element to Billie Jo's acceptance of herself is symbolized by the condition of her hands, especially as they relate to her piano performances and escape from her life in the Dust Bowl. Page after page she explains the degree of her pain, and we have no reason to doubt her. As her mother was begging for water on her death bed, Billie Jo was unable to provide the life-giving sustenance that might have prolonged her death because her hands would not function properly. In a valiant effort to restore her musical future, Billie Jo performs in the local talent competition and wins third place, providing a glimmer of hope that she might be able to continue her career. But at the graduation ceremonies, she is unable to play at all, saying that it has been too long since she used her hands.

This is, perhaps, the lowest point of her life, where she feels completely defeated and unable to see her future. As in all ancient Greek dramas, the Old Testament, and some modern drama (see Literary Qualities below), characters cannot begin their ascent to redemption until they have completely hit bottom. When Billie Jo learns from the doctor that her hands can be healed through the simple remedies of creams and exercise, we are distressed that Billie Jo has been deprived of this information for so long by her father's refusal to see a doctor. But this medical information also places into question Billie Jo's reliability as a narrator explaining her physical pain. It is possible that after the initial burns had healed Billie Jo was emotionally unable to gain control of her hands; in fact, if the doctor's diagnosis is correct and Billie Jo had been exercising her hands rather than refusing to force herself to play the piano, she might have recovered the use of them. By not using her hands to play the piano, she was honoring her mother's reluctance to give Billie Jo permission to follow a musical path. Before the accident she was eager to perform regardless of her mother's wishes; her refusal to play the piano afterwards provides an important insight into her emotional condition.

Abandonment is central to the novel's themes, and it appears in many forms. Most obvious is Bayard's abandonment of his wife (and daughter) to go drinking on the night of her death. The only reason Billie Jo forgives her father of this at the end of the novel is because she has learned the compassion to know that he, too, was in great pain because of the accident; he certainly knew that his wife was dying and could not bear the burden of her agony. Understandably, Billie Jo feels abandoned by her mother, which she exemplifies in her wish to adopt the abandoned baby in the chapter "Baby." Her poignant vision of the Lindbergh baby stiff and dead in the woods and her donation of clothes and the dimes her mother had saved for her piano education, reveal the depth of Billie Jo's feelings of abandonment. Billie Jo's father and the other farmers also feel abandoned by nature, which suggests a central idea: Job.

In the Old Testament, Job was a prosperous, pious man whose devotion God decided to test by stripping him of all his Earthly joys. First, God destroyed Job's wealth, then his livestock and the fecundity of the land to produce crops, and finally God killed his wife and children. At each disaster, Job refused to blame God for his misfortune until, at his lowest point, when any other man would have been broken—at which time most other men would have cursed such a malevolent God—Job reaffirms his faith and God rewards him by restoring good things to his life. Similarly, Bayard loses everything: crops, wife, new son, but he does not ever blame God. [Strangely, God is never mentioned by anyone in the novel, which is odd in a southern rural community during the 1930s.] Bayard, who is the Job figure, continues to have faith that his land will be restored, and in this respect does not abandon God even though God may seem to have abandoned the land.

Readers may well ask why Billie Jo isn't the Job figure. She certainly suffers, even more than her father who hasn't been burned. She has sacrificed more than him because she has lost not only her mother and brother, but all hope of escape from her plight in the Dust Bowl. Her father's future was already determined but she had her whole life ahead of her. And when she is reduced to total despair, she is more despondent and broken than her father at his lowest ebb. The difference between them as archetypal figures is that Bayard is truly the Job figure. We know nothing about his emotions as narrated by Billie Jo; he displays little emotion at the loss of his crops and family; he is never broken by the misfortune heaped upon him; and he never whimpers or transfers blame to anything else. He does not cry out against his fate.

Billie Jo, on the other hand, is a New Testament figure, a modern rather than ancient hero. In one of the most famous passages in modern literature, Ernest Hemingway wrote that if you are too strong, the world will break you but that afterwards, you will be stronger in the broken places. Billie Jo has been tested and tested; the world has been relentless in its attempt to break this strong young women, and it finally succeeds, but Billie Jo has ultimately gotten the best of her assailant because she has rebounded in the broken places by forgiving her father, accepting his fiancee, encouraging his renewed start in life, and believing that with creams and exercise, she may play the piano again.

All of the themes are emotional or spiritual except one, the Great Depression, which is social. Throughout, there is support for the government and justifiable belief that the government will help the people. Billie Jo is honored to play for the Franklin D. Roosevelt benefit; she names her dead brother Franklin in honor of the President; the government sends ample food aid to the school program; and on several occasions, it is made clear that the government is providing loans to farmers with no obligation that they will be able to repay them. Only if the crops prosper and the farmers are able to get back on their feet will the loans be repaid. This view of the government as benevolent father figure pervaded social consciousness in the U.S. until well after World War II.

Readers may ask if physical impairment is a theme. During the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S., much social attention was rendered to the subject of "handicap" rights. The return of maimed Viet Nam veterans brought the issue to prominent attention, which ultimately produced legislation (The Americans with Disabilities Act) to protect the rights of the physically impaired. The thrust of the debate and final legislation was the recognition that American society had long denied the rights and capabilities of physically impaired people to lead a normal life within their limitations. As a small example but important symbol, wheel chair ramps were not provided for most buildings. In Out of the Dust Billie Jo is greatly impaired but there is no discrimination against her because of her handicap. Indeed, the community tries to help her by encouraging her to perform in the talent competition and awarding her third place. There is no stigma attached to her physical impairment, and people do not seem to be embarrassed by it, even though Billie Jo is. If there is any social inference to be drawn, it is that medical attention was not readily available. Billie Jo's father was not willing to spend the money to take her to a doctor, but this is probably more of Hesse's attempt to characterize him than to provide social commentary. During the Depression, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals usually provided their services for free to needy recipients, and the doctor in Out of the Dust appears to be of this mold.