The verse-novel "Out of the Dust" pursues the pulse of hope that beats within even the starkest circumstances. The novel opens in January of 1934, on a struggling farm in the heart of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. 14-year-old Billie Jo Kelby is a long-legged red-head with a talent for the piano. Although drought and economic depression make for a dismal future, Billie Jo's father (Bayard) and mother (Polly) adamantly hope for better luck and a good, long rain. The Kelbys also are eagerly anticipating the arrival of a new addition to their family: after a series of miscarriages, Polly is pregnant again and the baby is due to debut in the summer.
But as the drought stretches on and on, Billie Jo watches neighbors and life-long friends give up and move west to the green promise of prosperous California. Surveying the lonely landscape of the left behind, Billie Jo can't help but envy those who have escaped the Dust Bowl. Music is her only means of comfort, and Billie Jo snags a job playing piano in a jazz-and-blues band.
One July morning, Bayard carelessly leaves a pail of kerosene next to the stove and a fierce fire ensues. In an effort to save the house, Billie Jo grabs the flaming pail and empties it in the doorway—unaware that her mother is standing just outside, in the path of the flung flames. Billie Jo beats the fire out as fast as she can, disfiguring her hands in the process. The accident leaves Mrs. Kelby in agonizing pain, covered beyond recognition with third-degree burns. She dies in childbirth soon after, and the newborn son (Franklin) is quick to follow. In the wake of their deaths, Billie Jo tries to hold what remains of the family together but her father grows increasingly distant. She turns to music for solace only to find that the painful scars on her hands render piano-playing impossible.
A year passes without any improvement. When malignant tumors appear on her father's face, Billie Jo is overwhelmed by the fear that he will die, leaving her all alone. She decides to run away from home before such misery can materialize. On a train bound out of the dust and into the green west, Billie Jo swaps stories with a man who has abandoned his wife and children. Their conversation makes Billie Jo realize that running away will not help anything: in times of crisis, togetherness is the only wellspring of strength and hope. She thus returns home, ready—at last—to forgive her father and herself the role they played in the accident that killed Polly and Franklin.
In the autumn of 1935, life finally takes a turn for the better. Mr. Kelby consults a doctor about the tumors on his face and becomes engaged to a woman named Louise. Rain arrives. These examples of love and hope draw Billie Jo back to the piano. Bit by bit, she finds the strength to conquer her own pain, stretching the scars on her hands until she is able to make music again.
This report prepared by Tracie Amirante