Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: Out of the Dust - Karen Hesse

Out of the Dust
Karen Hesse
Series: N/A
Genre: Children's, Historical Fiction, Poetry
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Word Rating: As Depressing as Cancer, but Totally Worth the Read
On Goodreads

If you are looking for something cheerful and happy, step away from this book. Just step away. Leave. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

Okay, got that disclaimer out of the way. So I read this book a few years ago and I liked it very much and then it sat in my bookshelf until now, other than that time my mom read it, which it has also been a while since. Which is not to say it is a forgettable book, because as I was rereading it today. it all came flooding back to me, even specific phrases and lines, and all the little plot details, like Livie moving and the boy who came and asked them for food. So it's not a forgettable book in the slightest. It's more of something with a quiet punch that you won't ever forget, but won't always be thinking about. I was reminded of the existence of this book when my train of thought wandered into the territory of fire and burns. And since it had been years since I'd read it, I realized the intended audience for this book had to have been of the younger variety. And so, I really wanted to know if I would still find it as heartbreaking or impactful now as I did back then. The answer, in short, is yes. I do. I'm glad I reread it because it has quite a different impression at this stage of my life than it did the first time I read it.

The book is written in free-verse poetry and when I read it the first time, I didn't really understand why. I thought it read like normal diary-type entries. I guess it's because it's very narrative poetry, and it focuses more on the story than on fancy words and metaphors. However, reading it this time around, I appreciate the way it's written so much more. For one, it seriously adds to the tone and the feel of the book. The verses are just long enough to get the point across, but don't waste time on unnecessary detail. This way, when the extra detail here or there is added in, you pay extra attention and I like the effect achieved. The book has a very empty and depressing feel to it, as if Billie Jo, the main character, is just experiencing daily life without actually living. This girl is so young and she already feels like life is hopeless, like it's all about surviving from one day to the next. The word choice and style of this book is just one of the things that really makes it stand out. For example, in the very beginning, this is how Billie Jo describes herself:
Daddy names me Billie Jo.
He wanted a boy,
he got a long-legged girl
with a wide mouth
and cheekbones like bicycle handles.
He got a redheaded, freckle-faced, narrow-hipped girl
with a fondness for apples
and a hunger for playing fierce piano.
It's short and sweet but still manages to get across not only her physical appearance, but two of her most prominent traits: her love for apples and her skills at piano. There are other lines scattered throughout that I love, too but listing them all would just involve me retyping this whole book onto this document, which would defeat the purpose of the review. Even though it's such straightforward writing, the way she described the apple trees and her mother and the dust storms are just really well done.

Speaking of apples and mothers and dust storms, there's a lot that goes on in this book. It doesn't really have a specific "plot" where there is a specific conflict to resolve and certain antagonists to face. Set in the 1930's, not only is the Great Depression in full swing, but out in Oklahoma there are these terrible, awful dust storms. They destroy all the crops -- which is their primary method of livelihood -- and they make people sick and they are horrible and unrelenting. And they happen often, unlike the rain, which comes almost never. And so they've got no food, no money, and no positive outlook. On top of this, Billie Jo goes through so much trauma. This isn't a spoiler, because it says it right there on the back cover, and it happens very early in the book, but she loses her mother and her unborn brother in a horrific fire that she feels guilty for but also blames her father for, too. In the aftermath of this fire, her hands are burnt to bloody, pus-filled pulps that aren't so good for piano playing. At least, not until they heal. It sounds bad enough as it is, but the way it's written about in the book is just heartbreaking. On top of that, a slew of other things happen to her, which I won't spoil, but are just as depressing. Hell, at one point, her father is digging a 6 foot deep "pond" which I am almost definitely sure was supposed to be his own grave.

Basically, read this book and have a good cry and just appreciate how well done it is. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

- Noor

What stories have haunted you because of how depressing they were?
Let us know in the comments!

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