Out of the Dust

by Karen Hesse

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What is the significance of the "Piano, my silent mother" quote in Out of the Dust?

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Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse invites much debate about its diary-like structure and poetic devices. It is narrated by fourteen-year old Billie Jo, an unreliable narrator, and can be enjoyed for its depth of meaning or simply its seemingly unsophisticated approach. An analysis reveals far more than the words may suggest about the psychological effect of the penetrating dust which dominates the lives of the townspeople and the devastating effects of the fire on Billie Jo's family.

The piano is very symbolic for Billie Jo, as her mother was an accomplished piano player and Billie Jo imagines her own future away from the stifling town using her own skill as a musician. She also recalls that her mother was happiest there and her parents' relationship seemed at its most content at the piano. However, after the fire, in which her mother was badly burned and subsequently died in childbirth, her own hands were burnt (making it difficult to play). Billie Jo blamed her father for the fire; despite all the factors leading up to it, including Billie Jo's own involvement, she finds it difficult to move on.

"The Dream" reveals how much Billie Jo misses her mother and uses the piano as the physical representation of her, finding solace in the potential for music. Billie Jo appreciates the connection her mother had to the piano and its prospects and she can start rebuilding her life and working through her emotions. This will ultimately lead to her forgiving her father. Therefore, despite the irony in the "silent" piano, this quote helps the reader to see that the piano is the key to Billie Jo's ultimate reconciliation.   

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In this short entry of her diary, "Summer, 1935," Billie Jo records a dream she has had in which she recognizes that her mother has left behind something of herself in her piano. The piano, a symbol of her mother, comforts Billie Jo.

Early in her life, Billie Jo takes on her mother's talent and becomes a skilled performer in her own right. But, after the fire in their house and Billie Jo's tragic mistake with the kerosene, Billie Jo cannot emotionally recover from the terrible death of her mother and her baby brother. Her burned hands serve only to remind her of the loss of her beloved mother while she becomes alienated from her father, whom she cannot forgive for leaving the kerosene her mother mistook for water by the stove.

Because the piano has been a loving and emotional connection between her mother and her father and she is also unable to play it for a long time, having burned her hands so badly in trying to save her mother, at first Billie Jo perceives the piano as a reminder of what she has lost. But, in her diary entry, Billie Jo writes of her dream. In this dream she understands that the piano is her mother's legacy. There is something spiritual that her mother has left behind: the love of music and talent that Billie Jo and she share. She has not been totally abandoned, after all.

Uncomplaining/ you accept/ the cover to your keys/ and still/ you make room/ for all that I /place there/ we close our eyes/ and together find that stillness/ like a pond

The mention of the pond is significant, too, since her father has dug a pond to hold the rain when it comes. Then, he can use this water in times of drought and perhaps save his crops. The dream about the piano marks the beginning of Billie Jo's healing.

"I may look like Daddy, but I have my mother's hands. Piano hands, Ma called them, sneaking a look at them any chance she got. A piano is a grand thing," I say.

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