Out of the Dust

by Karen Hesse

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What does Hesse's figurative language and imagery in Out of the Dust reveal about Billie Jo?

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Karen Hesse's use of figurative language and vivid imagery in Out of the Dust reveals that her first-person narrator, Billie Jo, is observant and empathetic as well as in possession of a deep understanding of her situation and the ability to express it creatively.

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In her poetic novel Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse sets forth the story of Billie Jo in a series of poems that are filled with figurative language and imagery. Hesse employs metaphor, simile, symbolism, personification, hyperbole, sensory detail, and vivid imagery, just to name a few. These beautiful and interesting forays into language make for excellent reading, but they also tell us something important about Hesse's main character, Billie Jo.

Remember that Billie Jo is the first-person narrator of the story, so within the story's world, she is the creator of the poetry and its figurative language and imagery. This tells us some important things about Billie Jo. First, she is a highly observant and empathetic person. Let's look at an example in the poem “Haydon P. Nye.” This man was Billie Jo's neighbor, and he passed away the week before. Look at what Billie Jo has to say about him and his life:

Some years
Haydon Nye saw the sun dry up his crop,
saw the grasshoppers chew it down,
but then came years of rain
and the wheat thrived,
and his pockets filled,
and his big laugh came easy.

Billie Jo seems to know a lot about Haydon Nye and his life. She has probably listened closely to what others have said about him, and she knows the history of her part of Oklahoma well. So she can put herself in Haydon Nye's place and imagine what he saw and experienced all those years on the Oklahoma prairie and then write about it in a way that helps her readers imagine it as well.

The use of figurative language and imagery in this novel also reveals Billie Jo's creativity. In “The Path of Our Sorrow,” Billie Jo relates her teacher's words about how Oklahoma has come to its current state of depression and dust. Then she concludes with her own creative observations:

But now,
sorrow climbs up our front steps,
big as Texas, and we didn't even see it coming,
even though it'd been making its way straight for us
all along.

Look at how she presents sorrow here. She personifies it, making it into some kind of being that climbs up the front steps of the homes of Oklahoma families. It is “big as Texas” (notice the simile), but paradoxically, no one has seen it coming, even though it was always heading right at them. Billie Jo shows here that she has a firm grasp of the situation in Oklahoma and that she can express it with creative language that helps others get a solid feel for the sorrow Oklahoma faces.

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