Sometimes a metaphor dominates a story so much that it ceases to serve its purpose. Dust is that metaphor in Karen Hesse'sOut of the Dust, but it never gets too big—though one could argue if dust didn't absolutely pervade every aspect of this unique novel it wouldn't be a proper metaphor.
This is a novel of the 1930s Oklahoma Dust Bowl. Dust is everywhere, and it becomes all things: it is death, it is life, it is change, it is disease, it is healing, it is memory, it is forgiveness, it is love. Young Billie Jo is a gifted piano player who specializes in ragtime and jazz standards rather than the more sedate music her mother taught her, and all she knows is dust.
There are some pretty horrifying events here, most prominent the kerosene fire that causes Billie Jo's pregnant mother to be burned all over, resulting in Ma's death and the death of her baby boy. Billie Jo is partly (though wholly accidentally) responsible for her mother's death, though she has outer scars of her own—her hands are burned raw, preventing her from playing the piano she loves so much.
Billie Jo and her father draw into themselves and apart from each other, sullen and despairing in the face of the pervasive dust and the death of the woman they both loved. The girl wonders where her father is, who this shell is he left behind. Much of the book is about their mutual journey back to love and understanding.
We see 1930s Oklahoma vivid and haunting. At one point, when Billie Jo briefly leaves home, she meets a hollow man who's abandoned his family and headed west out of the dust, a man who steals Billie Jo's biscuits while she sleeps. We see hordes of farmers staring at the sky, hoping the dark clouds are rain and not more dust. We see land once golden and green with life now gray with death. We see haggard faces with hope draining and drained away.
Out of the Dustis harrowing, but it doesn't leave us empty. Billie Jo and her father experience the deepest loss imaginable, but they don't wallow in sorrow forever. Eventually, the dust itself drives them to new life. Surprisingly and wonderfully, Hesse doesn't gives us any of the now-ubiquitous "reach into yourself for strength to move on" nonsense, painting instead a much more realistic picture of pain and restoration.
This isn't a perfect novel, however. Hesse writes the whole thing as a series of free verse poems, and while that's a good choice in that it lends itself to the kind of sparseness a novel like this requires, it can also be annoying. There are phenomenal lines hidden here and there (like, "And she knows how to come into a home/and not step on the toes of a ghost"), there aren't enough to warrant the constant poetry which mostly ends up like broken prose.
That said, Hesse's novel is powerful, and a painfully realistic account of one of our nation's most difficult periods. Chances are the climax of the father-daughter portion of the story will affect adults much more deeply than younger readers, but there's plenty to appeal to adolescents as well. Hesse might not be the best poet, but she's adept at evoking the range of human emotion.
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