Sunday, April 20, 2014

Out of the Dust

Author:  Karen Hesse
Published: 1997
Newbery Medal Winner
I am really enjoying these poetry novels in free verse.  I'm noticing things I've never noticed before and the language is just beautiful.  I give too much information in my reviews, so I'm really going to not over do it this time because you MUST read this book.  The language is beautiful and sometimes it sounds like music or looks like music.

The book is Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.  This is a story of a young girl, Billie Jo, who lives in Oklahoma with her mother and father in the early 1930s.  The family lives in Oklahoma during the time of the Dust Bowl.  I read about the Dust Bowl when I taught 6th grade science, but I did not help my students understand the hard work and suffering the people endured.  I just didn't understand it.  I imagined it was dusty and people would stay inside, like I stay inside if it is too hot and I enjoy the air conditioner.  I was wrong.  This is so different.  There was no escape from the dust.  Windows had to be covered and sealed to keep the dust out.  Children wore masks to protect themselves from the dust on their way to school.  People died from dust pneumonia. (Read more about the Dust Bowl.)  Billie Jo describes a meal with her family:

We shake out our napkins,
spread them on our laps,
and flip over our glasses and plates,
exposing neat circles,
round comments
on what life would be without dust.

Daddy says,
"The potatoes are peppered plenty tonight, Polly,"
"Chocolate milk for dinner, aren't we in clover!"
when really all our pepper and chocolate,
it's nothing but dust.

Billie Jo's father, Bay, is just like Billie Jo.  Both of them have red hair, long legs, and wipe their mouths in the same way.  Billie Jo has her mother's hands and plays the piano like her mother.  Billie Jo loves the apples her mother, Polly, grows on the two trees in the yard.  She has, "a fondness for apples and a hunger for playing fierce piano."

The story is about their struggles on the land until their is an awful tragedy that changes their lives.  They have to come to term with these changes and fix relationships.

Playing the piano brings peace to Billie Jo and she sees it as a way to escape the land which brings so much difficulty.  The chapter, On Stage, captures how she loves the piano and is actually written like a piano piece.  There is work for the right hand and the left hand.  The writing is split on the page.

When I point my fingers at the keys,
                          the music
springs straight out of me.
                           Right hand
playing notes sharp as tongues,
telling stories while the
buttery rhythms back me up
                          on the left.

Throughout the book, Billie Jo dreams about leaving this land.  Interestingly, she always describes herself and her family as the land and she personifies nature.   Polly is pregnant and like her apple trees, "will bring forth fruit into our home."  On the day it rains, Polly goes out into the yard, naked, to let the rain wash over her.  Billie Jo describes her like a piece of fruit.  "She was bare as a pear, raindrops sliding down her skin...My dazzling ma, round and ripe and striped like a melon."   When it finally snows and the dust stops, the wetness clinging to the earth is described like a person recovering from a fever and the reader feels a bit hopeful, things should start looking up for Billie Jo.  "Dreamy Christmas snow, gentle, nothing blowing, such calm, like after a fever, wet, clinging to the earth."  Rain, missing for so long, is described as a stranger.  "I hear the first drops.  Like the tapping of a stranger at the door of a dream."

The reference of the earth being like a human and the humans like the earth shows us that Billie Jo is the land.  This land is in her.  It takes her the few years of struggle and attempts to escape the land to realize that she loves the land and loves her home.

The science teacher is teaching about the Dust Bowl in science.  I feel that if we share some of the chapters in this book with the children, they will really get a better understanding of this event.  As we prepare for the SOLs, the chapter Tested by Dust would teach and help the children connect to the story.

While we sat
taking our six-weeks test,
the wind rose
and the sand blew
right through the cracks in the schoolhouse wall,
right through the gaps around the window glass,
and by the time the tests were done,
each and every one of us
was coughing pretty good and we all
needed a bath.

I hope we get bonus points
for testing in a dust storm.

I highly recommend this book.  I've told you a lot, but I promise I didn't give too much away!  An amazing story!

Check this book out from your library!
Discussion Guide
About Karen Hesse

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