Learning from OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse


Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, and whether you want to call it research or priming the pump, every author has a list of books that are “must reads” before beginning the first draft of a new work.

For me, Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust was at the top of the list, and it remained a constant go-to throughout the writing of my debut book, Crazy.  To begin with, who would not be drawn to a book that earns the Newbery Award and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction (1997) as well as a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (2002)?  By the way, if you are not familiar with that last one, just try to imagine what it would be like to have a hefty six-figure sum dropped into your lap for creative purposes with no strings attached.

If you haven’t read this heart wrenching YA novel set during the 1930’s Oklahoma dust bowl, you’ve missed a literary and historical treat.  Fourteen-year-old Billie Jo recounts her father’s struggle to salvage the dwindling wheat crop while the family anticipates the arrival of a new baby.  In spite of the hardships, Billie Jo is a top scholar at school and an accomplished piano player, even participating in a local band to bring in a little extra money.  A month before the baby is due, both Billie Jo and her mother are badly burned from a freak accident for which Billie Jo blames herself.  When both her mother and the newborn brother die, Billie Jo is left to grieve in a house filled with dust with a father who becomes withdrawn and depressed.

Billie Jo feels like a cripple when she is no longer able to play the piano because of her burn scars, and soon her father develops skin spots that look just like the cancer that took his father’s life.  Billie Jo decides to leave her father “before he leaves her” by jumping on a boxcar to Arizona.  It is while she is fleeing her past that she discovers she cannot get “out of the dust” because the dust is a part of her and her life with her father.  She is able to return with forgiveness for both her father and herself, and they redefine their family relationship that now includes a special friend her father has met.

Out of the Dust worked as an inspiring role model to me for many reasons.  First, it is written in lovely, sparse free verse. When asked on her blog why she chose this format, Hesse said, “In my attempt to convey to the reader what it might have been like to live under such challenging conditions, I thought poetry might be an ideal way to subtly key the reader into the importance of every word and every action. It felt essential to cut out anything extraneous, to include only what was absolutely necessary to tell this story and give it a lean but credible shape.”  I love the idea that writing in verse gets to the core of what you are trying to say in a way that prose simply can not. While Crazy started out as a collection of adult poems, Hesse’s book helped me find a YA voice from which to tell the challenging conditions of my own story in verse.

The book is historical fiction.  Hesse spent extensive time reading articles from a newspaper that was published in the Oklahoma panhandle during the 1930’s dust bowl.  She drew from these articles when she included the talent show, dances and social customs of that era in her book.  The research my book required was less strenuous, because I lived through the sixties in which it is set.  But Out of the Dust provided a strong example of how important those historical details are to the authenticity of the story, and I’m thankful to say that I have an editor who held me accountable for every historical tidbit in my book!

The protagonist, Billie Jo, inspired me to build a realistic character who interacts with friends and events at school while maintaining yearnings and ambitions that draw her beyond the limits of her present circumstances.  And most importantly, I learned from studying Billie Jo how essential personal growth in a character is, and what a powerful tool forgiveness can be in the shaping of a story.

I don’t claim to be Karen Hesse by any stretch of the imagination, but I do aspire to her quality of writing.  I value what I have learned by reading and rereading her work and trying to crawl inside the heads of such beautifully crafted protagonists as Billie Jo.

Reading the books you admire is like dressing for the job of your dreams.  If nothing else, it makes you better at the job you currently have.  And who knows, you may just have a shot at that dream job if you keep dressing this way!


Hey READERS, I would love to hear from you.

Is your MIND FULL of old thoughts or new?


Learning from OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse — 4 Comments

  1. Linda,
    I enjoyed reading this book too. I’m so glad it had a positive effect on your novel in verse, soon to be on the shelves. October will be here sooner than we think!

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