Etta Jensen Professor Patten English 112A, Tuesday, Thursday April 21, 1998
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
Karen Hesse’s concise, powerfully loaded, free-verse style conveys emotional turmoil, desperate human conditions and a desolate landscape yielding scant hope.
Now Livie’s gone west,
Out of the dust,
On her way to California,
where the wind takes a rest sometimes.
And I’m wondering what kind of friend I am,
Wanting my feet on that road to another place,
Instead of Livie’s
January 1934 (9)
Hesse immediately gains our attention by using the unusual form of free verse, giving concise, intense meaning. Lean, stark and pared down, it is like the Oklahoma panhandle during the dust bowl of the early 1930’s. The short, to-the-point lines are harsh, outspoken, raw; mirroring the lives and demeanors of the inhabitants. The narrative also becomes a kind of eulogy for those who stayed behind, those who die and the demise of a way of life. Its imagery is that of a hot, dirty habitat where everything is choking, burning up and blowing away, including the people.
Hesse’s open verse style gives a sense of perpetual movement, in itself a simile of the constantly fluctuating wind, always present, and Billie Jo’s discontent. The chronological poems reflect the heart of a thirteen-year-old girl. Billie Jo’s stirrings, "Darn that blue-eyed boy/ with his fine face and his/ smooth voice,/ twice as good/ as a plowboy has any right to be" (11), are reminiscent of Jonas in The Giver. The reader oscillates with the heroine’s moods as she approaches her coming of age, "I have a hunger,/for more than food./ I have a hunger/ bigger than Joyce City." (128). Billie Jo reports in blunt terms her predicament and demonstrates the restlessness of an adolescent girl.
"Now Livie’s gone west", a seemingly literal description, alludes to the massive departure of people to California from the dustbowl of the 1930’s. This phenomena becomes a working paradigm for Hesse’s novel. "On her way to California" connotes more than just a destination, California sounds like a romantic destination; the California Dream. After all, the nickname for California is the "Golden State", referring to the gold rush, but also suggesting the state’s golden fields and sunshine. The state’s motto is, "Eureka! I’ve found it!" It was definitely considered the land of opportunity and the farthest west one could get without falling into the Pacific Ocean; the farthest from Oklahoma. Even the name, California, was derived from a Spanish novel written in 1510 in which a fictional island paradise named California was described. Billie Joe is eager to "walk my way west/ and make myself to home in that distant place/ of green vines and promise" (59).
"Out of the dust" is a multi-stable image with a myriad of connotations. Why not say, "leaving the dust bowl"? Literally that is what many people of the Panhandle are doing. But Hess’s choice of words implies much more. They are not leaving, but "out of it, as though they are a part of something. "Out of implies a bond or a common origin. "Dust" becomes its own entity in a metaphorical world, a community, society enclosed in a world of dust. Like being in a womb, they are part of it, living, breathing, taking nourishment, trapped, struggling, growing and changing. In Billie Jo a metamorphosis takes place, "And I’m learning,/watching Daddy, that you can stay/ in one place/ and still grow" (226). Many think of the Graves of Wrath and the struggles of those who fled the dustbowl, but through a young g’el’s eyes we get an intimate look at what life was like for those who remained in the dust. As the title Out of the Dust implies, this story is born from their struggle.
Karen Hesse pulls the reader into a world of dust. Dust is omnipresent and practically every poem makes reference to it.
We shake our napkins
spread them on our laps
and flip over our glasses and plates,
exposing neat circles,
on what life would be without dust. (21)
Jensen 4 Literally dust means finely powdered earth, A cloud of dust comes to mind and the imagery of something suddenly busting, expelled, like a plane from a cloud. Out of the dust is what Billie wants, never to return. There is a longing here, but also an irony. Billie Jo want to leave the dust bowl and escape her problems, but she is a product of the dust, a child of the Panhandle. Dust is an archaic definition of the human body. We are all made of dust. A dead person’s remains are also referred to as dust (ashes to ashes, dust to dust). This alludes to a person coming full circle, a prevalent theme. It also reflects an old biblical saying hinted at in The Giver, "he who runs from his destiny runs toward it."
Symbolic of the ensuing battle in the dustbowl, is the discovery of ancient dinosaur fossils in nearby hills. The windblown dust has worn away the outer strata of rock exposing the bones "like fence rails" (187). Here is a reminder of what can happen if beings do not adapt to changes in the environment. It’s a hint from the past. This suggests two basic straggles in Billie Jo’s life. First, the Panhandle weather is hostile for redheaded people of fair-skin like Billie Jo’s family. There’s little protection from the wind, sun and dust in Oklahoma, and her family suffers, "Since Grandpa died/ from cancer/ that ate up most of his skin" (4). A threatening growth on her father’s skin worries Billie In, "My father thinks awhile,/ robbing that spot on his neck." (189). The ancient beasts that walked that part of the world may have become extinct because the environment became too hostile for them. Secondly, stubborn farmers, like her father, refuse to change their ways and rotate crops; thus, encouraging soil erosion:
It has to be wheat.
I’ve grown it before.
I’ll grow it again. (40)
The extinct dinosaurs couldn’t change either, which leads Billie to muse, "I ought to get out of here before my own/ bones turn to stone" (188). Out of here is anywhere "out of the dust". "Ashes to ashes and dust to dust" also connotes fire and heat. Everything seems to be burning up in Oklahoma. Billie Jo’s opening description of herself, "I hollered myself red the day I was born./ Red’s the color I’ve stayed ever since" and "He got a redheaded, freckled, narrow-hipped girl/ with a fondness for apples/ and a hunger for playing fierce piano" (3), suggests the image of a red inferno burning up the piano keys. The fact that her fair skin is sensitive to heat is a polarity in the story. The scorching wind and dust come while Billie watches the scrawny plants "fry". The winds bring "a red dust/ like prairie fire" (46). The rain that rarely follows provides little relief because it either comes too hard and fast, washing the wheat away, or there’s too little to make much difference. This paradox of fire and water is central to the tragedy in Hesse’s story.
Daddy put a pail of kerosene next to the stove and Ma, fixing breakfast, thinking the pail was filled with water, lifted it, to make Daddy’s coffee, poured it, but instead of making coffee, Ma made a rope of fire, it rose up from the stove to the pail and the kerosene burst into flames
Ma ran across the kitchen,
out the porch door,
screaming for Daddy.
I tore after her,
thinking of the burning pail
left behind in the bone-dry kitchen,
I flew back and grabbed it,
throwing it out the door.
I didn’t know.
I didn’t know Ma was coming back. . .
The implications are dire. Billie Jo, in trying to put out her mother’s flaming body, severely burns her hands. Playing the piano is the one thing she identifies with, "My place in the world is at the piano" (49), now she can’t play. She blames herself for the accident and the tragedy is doubly horrible because her mom’s pregnant. Again the contradiction of fire and water are illustrated "While Ma moaned and begged for water./ He (dad) drank up all the emergency money" (67). Billie tries to help by squeezing water from a dripping cloth into her mother’s mouth, but she couldn’t squeeze with her blistered hands "She cried for the water that would not soothe her throat" (67), a sad simile of the Oklahoma farmland.
The protagonist’s mother dies giving birth to a boy who only lives a short time, victims of the dustbowl. They are buried on a rise overlooking the dried-up Beaver River. She feels blamed by the townspeople for her mother’s death, but they say nothing about her father setting the kerosene next to the stove "They only said,/ Billie In threw the pail of kerosene" (72). Billy can’t forgive her father for the kerosene.
Out of this tragedy, can their be hope? "I don’t know my father anymore . . W e are both changing" (76), change is inescapable and necessary. The fact that a change is occurring gives the reader hope, welcomed and needed at this point. Her father is too consumed in his own mourning to be of any help. Things seem desolate until the rare blooming of a cereus plant under the protection of the night sky. And here it is; hope blooming "out of the dust", a simile of Billie Jo’s blooming in the dust. Billie In walks in the night, arriving at Mrs. Brown’s house at three o’clock in the morning, How can such a flower find a way to bloom in the drought, in this wind. It blossomed at night, when the sun couldn’t scorch it, when the wind was quiet, (81)
The sense of perpetual movement which permeates Hesse’s verse, is a metaphor for the constant, fluctuating wind The imagery is that of a hot, dirty, habitat where everything is choking, burning up and blowing away. California is a place "where the wind takes a rest sometimes". This infers the wind never rests where Billie to lives. The connotation is that if the wind would rest once in awhile, so could she. Rest also means freedom or cessation of exertion or worry, something the people of the region desperately need.
"And I’m wondering what kind of friend I am", an antithesis to witnessing her friend leave the dust, Billie Jo feels left in the dust. Livie kicks up the dust in Billie Jo’s face as she leaves her, unsettled in the dust. Livie is on her way to a better place, where there is solace and hope. As much as she will miss her friend, she would rather have her "feet on that road to another place,/ instead of Livie’s". The protagonist is feeling guilty. She should be feeling more grief over Livie’s leaving, than for herself being left behind.
"Wanting my feet on that road to another place" implies a detachment between where Billie to envisions her feet on the road and where she physically is. Unlike Jamie in What Jamie Saw, who actually feels his feet in the skates on the ice, Billie Jo imagines her feet on the road. She lacks the autonomy Jamie has and the control over her destiny. This phrase is a metaphor for the adolescent restlessness in Billie to and her hate of being left behind. In another coming of age theme, she’s stuck at the top of the "Ferris Wheel" as Winnie Foster was in Tuck Everlasting. Like Winnie, who follows the toad into the wood, Billie makes a decision to leave the Panhandle and gains important insight in the process.
Unable to handle the bitterness she feels towards her father, Billie Jo hops a freight train on its way "out of the dust", but