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Out of the Dust

by Karen Hesse

The Book Club Novel Guide outlines a complete theme-based unit with Book Club lesson plans focusing on Out of the Dust.

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Below you will find a synopsis, further reading materials, discussion topics, and reviews that you might find useful during your teaching of Out of the Dust.

A Synopsis

Fourteen-year-old Billie Jo is the only child in an Oklahoma farm family struggling to eke out a living during the Dust Bowl. She tells her story in free-verse poetry in dated entries that span a two-year period, 1934–1935. Billie Jo dreams of getting “out of the dust” one day, perhaps by using her talent for playing a “fierce piano,” a skill she learned from her mother. This hope evaporates and Billie Jo is plunged into grief when her mother dies after a gruesome accident. The cause is a bucket of kerosene her father left near the stove, but Billie Jo is partly responsible, too. Burns from the fire leave her own hands so injured that she cannot even touch the piano, and her silent and disconsolate father offers little comfort.

In the year that follows, Billie Jo eventually begins to practice piano again. The music reminds her of her mother and soothes her. But she and her father remain estranged, and the dust storms keep coming. Finally, Billie Jo decides to leave. She gathers the dimes her mother saved for her education and takes a boxcar west. On the train, she tells another Okie migrant about her mother’s death and the loneliness she and her father have suffered. The confession makes her realize that she misses home.

Reunited with her father, she finds she can forgive him and herself. In the coming months, she meets and comes to love her father’s new friend, Louise, a frank and friendly woman who respects the memory of Billie Jo’s mother. As playing the piano becomes easier for her, Billie Jo feels hopeful about the family to which she now belongs.

Further Reading and Links

The following sites can be used to support and enrich the Book Club unit for Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.

About the Author and the Book

  • Karen Hesse — This site gives a biography and an interview about the author provided by Scholastic.
  • Karen Hesse — This site provides another biography provided by the Children's Literature Network. Below the biography is a list of Karen Hesse's works with short summaries for each of them.
  • Interview with Karen Hesse — At this site, follow the link to an interview with the author provided by Macmillan.
  • Common Sense Media — This review of the book gives it 4 out of 5 stars. You can read details and user reviews about the book.
  • Carol Hurst Review — Besides a book review this site offers activities, related books, and further links.

Learn about the Setting of the Novel

  • Map of the Dust Bowl — The Modern American Poetry site has a map showing the drought area of the Great Plains in the 1930s as well as a timeline of the events.
  • Photographs of the Dust Bowl — Black and white photographs including pictures of Cimarron County, Oklahoma, the area hardest hit by the Dust Bowl—and the specific setting of Out of the Dust—are presented at the PBS site. The site also offers an Interactive Dust Bowl—What if you had lived in the Dust Bowl? and other information.
  • Songs about the Dust Bowl — This site presents more than a dozen ballads that tell the stories of Dust Bowl farmers and migrants. All were written in the 1930s by folk-singer and Oklahoma native Woody Guthrie.
  • President Franklin D. Roosevelt — This biography of the 32nd president includes his personal background and political achievements.

Explore the Events of the Novel

  • Surviving the Dust Bowl — An American Experience presentation from PBS, tells "the remarkable story of the determined people who clung to their homes and way of life, enduring drought, dust, disease—even death—for nearly a decade" during the ecological disaster known as the Dust Bowl. The website provides teaching ideas, a map, timeline, and transcripts of interviews with survivors. The DVD may be ordered through the website or visitors can watch the program online.
  • Black Sunday — A short description of the most damaging dust storm, which struck on April 14, 1935, is given at this site. This storm is depicted in the "April 1935" section of the novel.
  • Migrating to California — This site from the Library of Congress offers a detailed account of the experiences of Dust Bowl refugees who pinned their hopes on a better life in California.

Read Theme-related Literature

  • "Sympathy" by Paul Laurence Dunbar — This site provides a poem that can be used to develop the theme of how people confront hardships and to contrast formal, rhymed poetry with the free verse style of Out of the Dust.
  • "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden — This poem describes the "austere and lonely offices" of a father's love and has theme connections to Out of the Dust.

Songs Mentioned in the Novel

Big Theme Questions

How do difficult experiences help define us and help us discover who we are?

What effect does hardship have on personal dreams and hopes?

How do loss and grief affect family relationships? How can people rebuild their lives after the loss of a loved one?

What is the meaning of home? What does it mean to be “at home with yourself ”?

Outline of Lesson Plan | Discussion Topics | Writing Prompts

The following section can be used to get discussions started in your classroom. It is based on the Lesson Plan within the Book Club Novel Guide for Out of the Dust. The Lesson Plan includes blackline masters for the students that support the writing prompts. The writing prompts provided are meant as suggestions only. As students become more comfortable with the Book Club format, they will certainly have ideas and questions that go beyond the prompts. Consider giving students “free choice” as a log option. Book Club Reading Logs help students respond to literature and organize ideas as they participate in Book Club.


January 1934 | Literary Elements: Free Verse

  • Do you like reading a novel that is written in free verse? Why or why not?
  • What is Billie Jo’s passion? Do you have something you feel passionate about? Describe it.
  • What does the author say and show about Billie Jo in this section? Begin a character map for Billie Jo.

February–March 1934 | Comprehension: Setting

  • How do the drought and the constant dust affect Billie Jo’s family?
  • What kind of person is Ma? How do you know?
  • Billie Jo says that Daddy and Ma don’t cry about the dust and mud. Why do you think they don’t cry?
  • Add to your character map for Billie Jo.
  • Find and describe interesting examples of the author’s use of free verse.

April–June 1934 | Language Conventions: Book Club Discussions

  • Why is playing piano important to Billie Jo?
  • How does Billie Jo feel about the baby that Ma is about to have? How do you know how she feels?
  • How would you describe the mood of this section? Is it sad or hopeful? Explain.

July–August 1934 | Literary Elements: Similes

  • Who do you think is to blame for the accident? Explain.
  • Analyze Billie Jo’s nightmare.
  • What do you think Billie Jo will do now? What will her father do?
  • Contrast the mood of this section with that of the last section you read.
  • Copy some examples of striking similes from the text. Which similes appeal to the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste?

September–December 1934 | Literary Elements: Symbols

  • How does Billie Jo’s father behave after Ma’s death? Why do you think he behaves this way?
  • Describe Billie Jo’s relationship with her father after Ma’s death.
  • Why do you think Billie Jo can’t stand to watch the night-blooming flower wilt in the morning sun? What is symbolic about this plant?
  • How would you describe Billie Jo’s relationship with Mad Dog?
  • Is Billie Jo still eager to leave Oklahoma? Explain.

January 1935 | Language Conventions: Reading Log Entries

  • What new details about the physical and historical setting did you notice?
  • How is Billie Jo haunted by Ma in this section?
  • Do you think Pa is making progress through his grief? How is he changing? How are Billie Jo’s feelings toward him changing?
  • What does Billie Jo mean when she says, “I’m my father’s daughter”? Do you agree with her conclusion? Explain.
  • Discuss the mood of this section.
  • Think about a time when you felt distant from a friend or loved one and then became close again. Write down everything you can remember.

February 1935 | Comprehension: Making Connections

  • Why does Billie Jo take an interest in the migrant family who live at the school temporarily?
  • What does Billie Jo hope to achieve by entering the talent contest?
  • Have any of your earlier predictions about the characters been confirmed? Explain. What new predictions do you have about the story?

March 1935 | Comprehension: Character Motivation

  • What motivates Billie Jo to say, “I just want to go away”?
  • Have there ever been times when life seemed “brittle and sharp” to you? What made you feel this way?
  • Why is it hard for a young person to be without a mother?

April 1935 | Literary Elements: Images

  • Does Billie Jo think her relationship with her father is improving? Do you think it is? Explain, using evidence from the story.
  • How is Billie Jo’s relationship with Mad Dog changing?
  • What images does Hesse use to describe the dust storm—before, during, and after? Why are these images effective?

May–June 1935 | Literary Elements: Personification; Characterization

  • In the poem “Hope,” how does the author personify the rain and the earth? What words and phrases make each seem human?
  • What events in this chapter raise Billie Jo’s hopes? What events leave her feeling disappointed?
  • Update your symbols chart and add to your list of similes.
  • Add information about Billie Jo to your character map.

July–August 1935 | Comprehension: Conflict

  • Why do you think the author chose the form she did for the poem “The Dream”? Why does Billie Jo call the piano “my silent mother”?
  • What do you think is the major conflict in the novel? Explain your answer.
  • Describe the event that marks the climax of the story. What makes it the climax?
  • What has Billie Jo learned about her father? What has she learned about herself?

October–December 1935 | Literary Elements: Resolution and Themes

  • How does Billie Jo respond to Louise? Why?
  • Have you ever had to welcome a newcomer into your family? Describe the experience.
  • What changes in Billie Jo and Pa contribute to the positive mood at the end of the story? How does the setting reflect these changes?
  • Did you find the ending of the story satisfying? Explain.
  • What message do you think the author wanted to communicate in this novel?