Out of the Dust: Summary, Characters & Theme

Out of the Dust: Summary, Characters & Theme
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  • 0:23 Out Of The Dust Summary
  • 3:10 Out Of The Dust Characters
  • 4:48 Out Of The Dust Themes
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

Out of the Dust is a 1997 novel by Karen Hesse. The winner of the 1998 Newbery Medal, Out of the Dust is remarkable through its use of verse to tell the story of Billie Jo Kelby's life on a farm during the Dust Bowl years.

Out of the Dust Background

Out of the Dust is a 1997 novel by Karen Hesse. The winner of the 1998 Newbery Medal, Out of the Dust is a story that uses verse to tell the story of Billie Jo Kelby's life on a farm during the Dust Bowl years. This lesson will cover the summary, characters, and themes discussed in Out of the Dust.

Out of the Dust Summary

Billie Jo Kelby lives on a farm in Oklahoma with her parents during the Great Depression. Her father, Bayard Kelby (henceforth called Daddy), is a wheat farmer who has always wanted a son. Her mother, Polly Kelby (henceforth Ma), is a homemaker who is expecting a baby. The whole family is looking forward to the baby's birth. The farm is in trouble because of drought and dust storms, and their neighbors are leaving for better lives in California, but Billie Jo forgets her sorrows when she plays the piano, a talent she has fostered for years.

A music manager at Billie Jo's school, Arley Wanderdale, is impressed with her talent and invites Billie Jo to play with his band, The Black Mesa boys, at the Palace Theater. The band is led by singer Mad Dog Craddock. Ma reluctantly gives her permission, and Billie Jo is an immediate success. Billie Jo persuades Ma to let her travel to neighboring towns to play during the summer, and Ma agrees because the family desperately needs the money.

But in July, tragedy tears the Kelby family apart. Ma mistakes a bucket of kerosene for water, and starts a fire in their house. Ma runs for Daddy, and Billie Jo quickly throws the kerosene out of the house. Tragically, the kerosene splashes all over Ma. Billie Jo uses her hands to try to put out the fire, and burns them badly. Ma is also severely burned, and dies less than a month later, giving birth to a baby boy. Billie Jo's brother, named Franklin, dies a few days later and is buried with his mother.

Billie Jo's father detaches emotionally while Billie Jo, despite her injuries, tries to keep the household running like Ma did. The conditions on the farm deteriorate. Daddy gets a job with the power company and begins taking night classes. Billie Jo's hands make it painful for her to play piano, but she still tries. When she hears about a talent show at the Palace, she enters and wins first prize. Even her music holds no solace for her, though. Billie Jo withdraws into herself, losing many of her friends in the process. Only Mad Dog treats her as he always has. When she's asked to play at the school's graduation, she just sits there, unable to play a note.

The breaking point for Billie Jo comes when her father ignores some spots on his skin, even though skin cancer killed his father. Billie Jo believes Daddy would rather be dead with her Ma than alive with her, and she runs away, hopping on a freight train to get away from the dust that has consumed her life. Billie Jo gets as far as Flagstaff, Arizona, before realizing she can't get out of the dust; she's brought it with her. Instead, she needs to learn how to thrive in it and grow.

Billie calls home from a store in Arizona, and her father is waiting for her when she gets back to Oklahoma. Things improve. Billie Jo begins playing piano again. Daddy goes to the doctor to have the spots removed, and he begins seeing his teacher from night school, Louise. Billie Jo struggles at first with their relationship, but when Daddy asks Louise to marry him, Billie Jo is thrilled for them and looks forward to the future.

Out of the Dust Characters

Billie Jo Kelby is a 14-year-old girl living in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl years. Billie Jo loves her family and her music, and she struggles when both are taken from her. Billie Jo is the first-person narrator of the free verse poems that make up Out of the Dust.

Polly Kelby / Ma is Billie Jo's mother is from a higher class than her father who tries to teach her daughter some refinement. Ma is a musician, and spends her time caring for her family and the household.

Bayard Kelby / Daddy is Billie Jo's father and a wheat farmer who is somewhat resistant to change and new ideas. Daddy is disappointed that Billie Jo was born a girl and longs for a son. Even when his neighbors give up and head west, Daddy stubbornly clings to the land. After Ma dies, Daddy withdraws into school and work, neglecting himself and his daughter.

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