Out of the Dust
Article first published online: 14 JUN 2011
© 2011 The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies/Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Volume 8, Issue 1, pages 101–103, Spring 2011
How to Cite
MEYER, M. J. (2011), Out of the Dust. Steinbeck Review, 8: 101–103. doi: 10.1111/j.1754-6087.2011.01089.x
- Issue published online: 14 JUN 2011
- Article first published online: 14 JUN 2011
1997 . 227 pp. $15.95. New York : Scholastic Press ,
Widely praised by critics, Out of the Dust, a collection of free verse poems by Karen Hesse, was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1998 for the most distinguished contribution to children's literature. Powerful in its original approach to its subject matter, the book is told in first person through the voice of Billie Jo Kelby, fourteen-year-old girl who presents readers with a diary-like account of her life in the Oklahoma panhandle from 1934 to 1935. Divided into eight parts and based on the seasons, Out of the Dust offers teachers a fine parallel text to read with Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. In addition to relating more graphic details about the dust storms and the lack of rain than are found in Grapes, Hesse's novel in verse also describes other excesses (jackrabbits and grasshoppers) that plagued Oklahoma at this time.
When this novel is combined with the PBS video, The American Experience: Surviving the Dust Bowl, which first aired in April 1999, young readers will definitely understand the complexity of the lives of Oklahomans in the mid-thirties, their bleak outlook and desperation, and the difficulty in maintaining a clear commitment to the land they loved.
In lyrical language and with wonderfully original metaphor and simile, Billie Jo's monthly reflections offer a moving testimony of the traumas she experiences during her adolescence and of her attempts to cope with them, including an increasingly negative home life. Most telling is Billie's account of her father's leaving a bucket of kerosene near the stove and her mother's mistaking it for water. The resulting fire burns Billie's hands as she tries to remove the bucket from the house, but, worst of all, she throws the kerosene onto her pregnant mother, burning her own hands badly and setting her mother afire. At first, Billie's guilt is assuaged as she blames her father for the “accident,” but soon she begins to blame herself as her mother's health worsens and she dies in childbirth; sadly, the baby also does not survive. In conditions similar to those of Steinbeck's Joads, the Kelbys are forced to deal with an unexpected death—the image of which, however, Hesse ties poetically to the wilting weather and lack of rain that bring about the suffering and death of home and land just as the fire destroys mother and child.
But the loss of family members is not the only parallel event that Out of the Dust shares with The Grapes of Wrath. For example, Hesse also gives several examples of the generosity of the Okies as they share food and work with those who are migrating and moving to California. At one point, a migrant and his family are allowed to stay in the school, and the students not only bring food, but also toys and gifts, and the parents even supply the man with work. Like Steinbeck, Hesse also presents poetry, art, and music as ways by which the Okies overcome their despair. Events such as singing, instrument playing, and dancing in Steinbeck's portrayal of makeshift camps along the road and of the government's Weedpatch Camp frequently occur in Out of The Dust, indicative of both authors’ awareness of the power of the arts to raise the human spirit.
Also, just as Steinbeck incorporates Purty Boy Floyd and the Arvin Sanitary Camp into his story, Hesse introduces into her text several historical figures and events into her work, including the Dionne quintuplets, FDR, and Kilaulea, a Hawaiian volcano that erupted in the thirties.
Perhaps the only criticism one might make of the book is its rather happy ending. In this aspect, of course, Hesse does not mimic Steinbeck, who leaves his readers unsure of the fate of the Okies in general and of his protagonist family, the Joads, in particular. As Out of the Dust draws to a close, Billie Jo decides to leave home, to escape The Dust Bowl before her father is also crushed by it. It is a short-lived decision, however, as she soon recognizes her father's waning strength. “My father was more like the sod,” she writes, “steady silent and deep, holding on to life with reserves underneath to sustain him and me. My father stayed rooted even with my tests and my temper; he had kept a home till I broke it” (202). Returning to Oklahoma, she decides to make peace and forgive her father. As they reestablish their relationship, their surroundings improve. Rain returns, her mother's apple trees begin to flourish, her father discovers a new love in his night school teacher, and Billie herself vows to return to her first love of piano playing, despite the pain it causes her burnt and scarred hands. While some critics may consider Hesse's ending unrealistic and difficult to accept, the struggle she endures is believable, and the lessons she learns are important for young readers. Her determination and her positive attitude in the face of significant challenges mirror the Joads. Billie Jo greets each tomorrow with hope, her days full of promise, her nights quiet and restful and without despair.
Hesse's closing affirms her belief in humankind's ability to persevere: “Hard times aren't about money, or drought, or dust… . Hard times are about losing spirit, and hope and what happens when dreams dry up” (225). One can almost hear an echo of Steinbeck's Nobel speech about the human spirit in paraphrase. Like Ma Joad's reminder to Tom,“Why we’re the people. We go on,” Out of the Dust is a powerful first-person account of courage in the face of adversity and recognition that forgiveness and reconciliation can redeem even the most desperate life. Steinbeck would have agreed that this is a message no reader should do without.