Out of the Dust

by Karen Hesse

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Joyce City, Oklahoma is not a city at all—although there are a few stores, a school, a community center, and a hotel—but a farming community in one of the most desolate parts of the U.S. in 1934-1935. Dust storms have ravaged the land for four years, and in this, the fifth year of drought, almost nothing has survived. Every year Billie Jo's father, Bayard, and the other farmers, have planted their fall crop of wheat, only to have most of it churned up and destroyed by continuing dust storms. Joe De La Flor, a cattleman, barely keeps his herd alive because there is nothing to feed them but tumbleweed.

Dust permeates absolutely everything, and one of the strengths of Hesse's writing in this novel is her excruciating descriptions of the pestilence of dust. Chapter after chapter the presence of dust takes its toll on the characters' spirits until finally the great storm comes that buries tractors and animals, and kills people trapped in the open. The biblical prophesy of "dust to dust" is the literal physical condition of the characters. Dust has so infiltrated their bodies that they are on the verge of being transfigured into a heap of dust, into death. In her nightmare, which is no different from her reality, Billie Jo says

I was coming home
through a howling dust storm,
my lowered face was scrubbed raw by
dirt and wind.
Grit scratched my eyes,
it crunched between my teeth.
Sand chaffed inside my clothes,
against my skin.
Dust crept inside my ears, up my nose,
down my throat.
I shuddered, nasty with dust.

The action shifts between Billie Jo's house—a shack typical of destitute farmers—her school, the community center where she plays the piano, and various outdoor settings. When she decides to leave home, she hops a box car. But the physical setting is not nearly so important as Billie Jo's conscious interior. Her mind is a room which the characters and events seem to inhabit. Rather than moving into physical space, Billie Jo draws physical space into her interior so that it seems that almost every scene transpires within her mind.

Literary Qualities

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Hesse has imbued her novel with many literary precedents and innovative techniques, which are among the most interesting qualities of the novel. The most obvious are Hesse's use of sentence structure, line break, and chapter divisions. Readers will certainly ask why this book is considered a novel rather than a diary or poem, since it has all of the characteristics of the diary and poetic forms, and since reviewers have referred to it as all three. Its diary like qualities include the following.

Each entry contains a date, and even though the day of the month is not specified, it is clear that each event chronologically follows the next. The headings for each entry are more like personal tags for remembering the entry than chapter titles that designate novelistic structure. Fourteen year olds normally do not write novels, while keeping a diary or journal was typical of many American teenage girls during those and subsequent decades. And most important, the line length is short, truncated before the edge of the page requires it. This suggests that Billie Jo is writing for herself, unconcerned with the structure of the sentences; it may also suggest that she has written her diary in a smaller book, and that when it was published in standard book form, the lines did not fill the page.

These are very good arguments in favor of the form being a diary; there are other arguments for its...

(This entire section contains 2127 words.)

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being a novel, and reasons why the distinction is important. True diaries, as opposed to literary diaries, are not self conscious and are not written with an audience in mind other than the diary keeper. People usually keep diaries to express their innermost feelings, to serve as a reminder in future years of their past. The most famous diary of our century,Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1952; see separate entry, Vol. 1) is not written for anyone to read. In fact, Anne was terrified that her mother might find and read it, and even after the diary was turned over to her father, he expurgated sections before he would allow it to be published.

Billie Jo's "diary" is written with the intent that not only will someone read it, but that a total stranger will read it. She explains facts about the community, other people, and herself that would require no explanation in a diary. Second, and more subjectively (critics disagree on this point), the people who populate diaries do so because they have a direct connection with or influence on the diary keeper, especially a diary by a young girl. [Critics often distinguish diaries from journals by the impersonality or distance the narrator has on his/her subject. Thus the "Diary" of Samuel Pepys (1660-1669) might more accurately be called his "Journal" because his account of London life is more reportage.] Billie Jo presents people as characters, rather than references as her own friends.

In order to fairly interpret the themes of the book, it makes some difference if we regard it as a diary or novel because the function of the narrator changes between the two forms. In diaries, it is assumed that the narrator is the diary keeper and that whatever is entered is the impression of the author. There is no presumption that facts are presented to be facts but rather points of reference for establishing feelings. If the diary keeper says, "Sandy said such a cruel thing that it made me cry," we do not expect Sandy's remark to be regarded as a condition of cruelty, or even a point of fact, but merely the writer's response to something that was said. Conversely, if someone keeps a daily record of recipes or a log of t.v. programs watched, that is a journal or log.

Even though Billie Jo gives the appearance of keeping a diary, she falls into the circumstance of a fictional device called the "unreliable narrator," who gives the appearance of telling the truth but who, in fact, alters the reality of the situation for the purpose of allowing the reader to see through him/her. With humorous unreliable narrators like Huckleberry Finn, much of the humor is derived because Huck says he is doing one thing when we as readers we know he is about to do something else. "Unreliable" is not a negative critical term but one that simply identifies a narrator who may not be able to understand the full implications of what he/she says.

Billie Jo is such a narrator. When, for example, she states that her father left the bucket of kerosene by the stove, she implies that he did it on purpose. She doesn't tell us, or doesn't know why he would do such a thing, but she clearly sees it as an intentional act. She does not question his oversight (or evil intention) for leaving it there, but we readers are expected to do so. We are to look beyond what the unreliable narrator tells us to discover the truth. Anne Frank's diary is never written with such authorial intentions.

This makes Out of the Dust much richer as a novel than a diary; that Hesse presents it in diary format and poetic language compounds the layers of richness. Hesse invites us to probe Billie Jo's mind in a way a diary would not. If this were truly a diary, we would probably sympathize with Billie Jo and wish her well, but we would not be as compelled to understand her psychological complexity.

Another literary antecedent to Out of the Dust is episodic fiction, whose chapters do not have an apparent connection to each other. Certainly, in Out of the Dust there is cause and effect of some of the events, but there are many chapters which have no obvious connection to others, such as "Night Bloomer." Loosely, the ability of the cereus cactus to survive and produce a beautiful flower within the worst Dust Bowl conditions provides hope and fleeting beauty, but the chapter really has no connection to anything that happens, and had it been omitted, the reader never would have missed it. In tightly plotted novels, the omission of a chapter would render a section of the plot meaningless, whereas in episodic fiction many chapters (there are some crucial ones that cannot be left out) can be added or left out with little overall effect.

One of Hesse's most effective techniques is the use of poetry and poetic devices within the fictional structure. The short sentences and truncated lines may give the appearance of a diary but their primary function is poetics. The "line" in poetry is structured to call attention to particular words or phrases that carry special significance, imagery, or sound. Take, for example, a stanza from the chapter "Blame."

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

By breaking the first line after "they" and by placing "I" on a separate line, Hesse is focusing on how Billie Jo feels estranged from the people who are trying to help her. "They" are impersonal and serve as antagonists to Billie Jo. Hesse also places most of the verbs/adverbs (scrubbed, stayed, silent, listening) at the beginning of the lines and the nouns at the end (house, room, bed, voices). Look at the difference if the lines had been arranged as follows.

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

Here, the women are much friendlier; the narrator is lonely but assured of some comfort. The women are talking to ward off the unpleasantness of scrubbing away death, and the narrator hears their voices in contrast to her silence. The iron bed is just a fixture in the room, not a cold, hard piece of furniture that, as a bed, should be comforting. Also, this rearranged stanza that is read more as a complete sentence than fragment, presents a narrator who is more rational—whose emotional condition may be more stable than the staccato narration that Billie Jo actually feels. In her use of line break to create emotion and insight into Billie Jo's mind, Hesse gives us another avenue to understanding themes.

Hesse also uses the traditional poetic devices of metaphor and symbol. In the chapter "Something Lost, Something Gained," she applies direct metaphor (or simile) in comparing her mother to tumbleweed and her father to sod. Indirectly, she applies metaphor in her use of the cereus cactus that blooms valiantly at night, then dies with the morning light. Her mother was that flower, killed by light and heat, and her own life may be as well.

The difference between metaphor and symbol is that with metaphor there is a parallel between two objects, people, or ideas, whereas a symbol stands in place of an object, person, or idea. Sometimes metaphor and symbol work at the same time but on different levels. The cereus cactus works as both metaphor and symbol. Because this chapter comes not long after her mother's death, Billie Jo could not look at the cactus wither and die because that process reminded her of her mother's death; the petals would burn and wither in the sun as her mother's skin was burned and withered. But the cactus is also a symbol for perseverance and the night a symbol for a time of nourishment. In the dark hours a thing of incredible beauty blooms because it has survived; Billie Jo will, too.

Another example of Hesse's effective use of symbol occurs in the chapter "My Life, or What I told Louise After the Tenth Time She Came to Dinner," embodied in the lines:

On the other shelf Ma's book of poetry
And the invitation from Aunt Ellis,
or what's left of it.
Daddy and I tore it into strips
to mark the poems we thought Ma
liked best.

Aunt Ellis had extended an invitation to Billie Jo after her mother's death to move to Lubbock and live there. It was a surefire way out of the Dust Bowl, but Billie Jo knew instantly that it wasn't an option that interested her. She put the letter on a shelf in case she ever changed her mind, or at least to remind her that she did have a choice. Once Billie Jo and her father reconciled to forgive and help each other, the letter was no longer necessary for Billie Jo's security, and so she began to shred it, not all at once in an epiphany of understanding, but piece by piece as she became more secure; that the two of them tore it into strips adds a second level of symbolic meaning as it illustrates their union; a third level is added in that the strips are used to mark the poems they thought Ma liked best. Symbolically, they are trying to get in touch with her now when in life they did not know which were her favorite poems.

In addition to her skill in drawing on both fictional and poetic devices, Hesse also draws upon the premise of Greek drama to make her story more horrifying. In his essay "The Poetics," which is perhaps the most influential work of criticism ever written, the Greek philosopher Aristotle outlined the components necessary for a successful drama. One of his criteria was that a noble person of high status, because of his own fault (usually arrogance), falls from grace to the lowest possible level he could descend, then finds the courage (usually through humility) to rise again. This is, in fact, the same premise as the story of Job, except that the moral lessons are different.

Billie Jo is indeed a noble figure who is, for her time and place, highly accomplished. She is the best eighth grade student in the entire state of the huge state of Oklahoma, and she is an accomplished musician. It is her fate that the bucket of kerosene is placed in her path. Through carelessness she causes her own downfall and is directly responsible for her mother catching on fire. She quickly descends, and after much agony in her lowly position learns compassion, then forgiveness, and is able to begin her ascent toward restoration. It doesn't matter whether the reader recognizes this classical premise of high drama, but its effect is powerful and works as surely in Out of the Dust as it does in Oedipus The King or King Lear. A similar component of traditional literary device is the presence of the "four elements": earth, air, fire, and water. Whenever these forces combine against humankind, tragedy follows, and the power of "fate" becomes terrifying.

Social Sensitivity

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Out of the Dust is a high-minded, literary work that contains nothing that would offend a sensitive reader. The absence of homage to God or salvation is not sacrilege but an aspect of Old Testament stoicism that Hesse wishes to imbue in Bayard. There are many aspects of community life that Billie Jo simply does not address, and religion is one. Readers who believe that the worship of God precedes and permeates everything else, especially redemption and salvation, may find the absence of religion offensive, but it is simply not part of the story Hesse wishes to tell. Had she included religion, she would have brought an entirely new element to the story that would have clouded the drama she has created.

As a historical snapshot of the Depression Era, Hesse provides an effective portrait of the misery and entrapment of Dust Bowl farmers and ranchers. Page after page she describes the dust, to the point of excess and even monotony for the reader; yet this was the condition of the land. If readers felt the seemingly eternal never ending descent of dust, imagine how the participants felt after five years of drought. Hesse's positive portrayal of federal government benevolence may seem patronizing to people critical of the central government today, and they may question whether this aspect of Hesse's story was necessary to develop and resolve the tragedy of Billie Jo's life.

In the first few pages Billie Jo takes a strong stand against eradicating rabbits, even though they are desiccating what little foliage remains. She especially objects to clubbing them to death, and of the sport that is made of killing them. Hesse never really places this in context of Billie Jo's development, except as it reflects her youth and innocence at the beginning of the novel, and it serves more as characterization than political statement about animals. By the time Joe De La Flor's herd is so desiccated that government agents must systematically kill his cattle so they will not suffer, Billie Jo understands the humanity/necessity of sparing them the agony of slow, certain death. It is probably the attitude of the people who kill animals rather than the killing itself that offends her.

For Further Reference

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Hesse, Karen. In Something About the Author. Volume 74. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994, pp. 120-121. Short entry with some biographical and publication data, and a "sidelight" from Hesse explaining some of the early influences on her writing.

Hesse, Karen. Something About the Author: Juvenile Writers Autobiography Series. Volume 25. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998, pp. 117-138. Hesse writes warmly and intimately about growing up in Baltimore, attending college, working, marrying and having children, and writing books.

Horn Book 169 (1998). The reviewer says of Out of the Dust, "In first-person free-verse poems fourteen-year-old Billie Jo Kelby relates her Depression-era experiences in the Oklahoma panhandle. Billie Jo's aborted escape from the dust bowl almost gets lost in a procession of bleak events, instead of serving as the book's climax. Yet her voice, nearly every word informed by longing, provides an immediacy that expressively depicts both a grim historical era and one family's healing.

Horn Book 169 (1994). The reviewer says of Phoenix Rising, "The chilling aftereffects of a nuclear accident are explored in this grim, moving novel set in rural Vermont. Nyle and her grandmother take two refugees from the area near to the power plant into their home, and Nyle, whose own mother and grandfather are dead, slowly allows herself to befriend and come to love the fifteen- year-old boy, who is suffering from radiation sickness."

Kirkus Reviews. (September 15, 1997). The reviewer says of Out of the Dust that "The poem/novel ends with only a trace of hope; there are no pat endings, but a glimpse of beauty wrought from brutal reality."

Kirkus Reviews. (August 15, 1996). Reviewer says of The Music of Dolphins, "As someone whose inner resilience has allowed her to develop a dual nature, Mila is utterly convincing; in a highly individual voice, she describes her old and new lives—e.g., 'the sea is a big home where all the time is swimming and all the time is singing and all the time is touching in the big wet.' Changes in type size and style signal Mila's inner shifts as she turns toward humanity, then away, finding in the dolphins a wiser, more comfortable society. A probing look at what makes us human, with an unforgettable protagonist."

Lempke, Susan Dove. Review. Booklist (December 1, 1995). Lempke says of A Time of Angels, "Hesse's meticulous recreation of time and place (substantiated by an author's note) gets the novel off to a very slow start but lends an authentic feel to the story, despite some incidents that seem added merely for historical flavor. Her characters are also richly drawn, especially Klaus and Vashti, and there's a ring of truth to Hannah's being torn between her life in Vermont and her life in the city."

Monks, Merri. Review. Booklist (May 15, 1995). Monks says of Phoenix Rising, "Hesse introduces important issues—environmental disaster, friendship, first love, loss, and death—in a novel that is reasonably accessible; however, the book will require effort from its intended audience, as its focus is on character growth and development, and the plot moves rather slowly."

O'Malley, Anne. Review. Booklist (October 15, 1996). O'Malley says that The Music of Dolphins works largely because of Mila's sharp observations, the stranger-in-a-strange-land scenario, and the incredible notion of the dolphin family, all of which will interest elementary and middle- school readers.




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