Out of the Dust for awhile, mostly because of the boring cover (I'm that girl) and that it won the Newbery Medal in 1998 and I don't usually love Newbery winners (I'm that girl, too.) When I started researching novels in verse, Karen Hesse's classic kept coming up. I tried it out and am so glad I did. Out of the Dust sticks with you.
Billie Jo Kelby and her family live in Oklahoma during the dust bowl years of the Great Depression. People are starving, farms are folding, and many are fleeing west to escape the poverty of the Dust Bowl. After three years without a strong crop, the Kelby's economic situation continues to deteriorate. When a horrific tragedy strikes (I gasped. Anyone who has read this book knows the scene I am talking about.), they are emotionally and physically destroyed.
Grit is the word that comes to mind. Billie Jo has the grit to continue on after her world has been shattered. Her bravery and resilience are moving; I wanted to scoop her up and comfort her. Grit also has a literal meaning in the novel, with dust infiltrating every aspect of their lives. I never thought about having to keep glasses and dishes turned over while setting the table, nor what it was like for students to take a test in a dust storm. Hesse's imagery works the dust into the reader's mind until they, like Billie Jo, just want to escape to a cleaner, happier place.
Out of the Dust is impossibly sad, which is why the free verse format works so well. The reader is able to move through the book at a quick enough pace that the events aren't too depressing. Plus, the spare writing is a perfect fit for the setting, flowery prose just wouldn't work on an Oklahoma farm where there are never enough hours in a day.
Billie Jo's story will remain with me and has given my understanding of the Great Depression a new, more personal, dimension.