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The Theme of Adolescence in Out of Dust by Karen Hesse

Whenever authors make a teenager the main character of their stories, this means that transformation has to be expected that deals with coming of age theme. The protagonist of Karen Hesse’s novel Out of Dust is not an exception. Throughout the book a fourteen-year-old girl has to face a number of hardships, losses, the feelings of loneliness and despair. Dealing with the dilemma between giving up and starting anew, she realizes that love and care for other people can help her recover and becomes stronger, which is her way of growing up.


Historical setting of the novel is the Great Depression of the 1930s, which is worsened by the situation of the Dust Bowl, when farmers dealt with losing the ways of living and, what is the most horrible, losing hope. When placing her character, a teenage girl Billie Jo, in this environment, the author makes it clear that her adolescence is going to be full of challenges. However, social problems are not the only ones, which she will have to resolve. Family tragedy, the clash between true passion and necessity of survival, the loss of touch with her father are among those issues that she has to deal with. Hesse pictures Billie Jo as a strong personality despite her young age, although she is less mature at the beginning of the novel. She loves playing the piano, this is her true gift and passion, which she dreams to reveal to the world. However, because of the poor financial condition of the family, as it is the case with many other families of farmers, she has to spend her time in the house helping her mother to clean it. Metaphorically, the dust never ends, so the vicious circle repeats itself every day. Her mother is a talented pianist too, but she has to spend her life as a housewife with no real opportunity to express herself.

Because Billie Jo’s mother is pregnant, the situation of the girl is transitional: she realizes that when a younger sibling is born, she will be thought of as an adult. In fact, she is ready to take responsibility and she is used to coping with difficulties. She is very smart and goal-oriented, and she is the best student in the state. Billie Jo seems to manage her life successfully until a tragedy happens to her family. Her father accidentally leaves a kerosene jerry can in front of the house, which his wife mistakes for water. A blow that causes fire injures her and Billie Jo, which eventually ends in the woman’s death and then a death of a newly born infant.



The hopes for the future symbolized by the baby are shattered, the family stops to be a power that supports the girl and she stops contributing to the family too. Her heart is full of guilt, pain, and of blaming her father for the tragedy. Because of all these negative feelings she is isolated and she cannot communicate with her father as she used to. The author demonstrates how tragedy can separate people and how they are able to get united again if efforts of love and compassion are made. Yet, these things cannot be taught, they could only be learned as personal experience, which is necessary for maturing. The form of the novel is quite unusual; it is a free verse, which in combination with the first-person narration makes it confessional.

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It is clear that Billie Jo does not only lose her mother, but her whole world collapses. She becomes different from her peers in many ways, and she starts feeling sorry for herself. She realizes that she does not have the same life as other teenagers do, and this makes her feel an outcast. At this point, she only knows the way of separation; she has to learn the way of reconciliation and integration. The situation is worsened by the fact that her hands are burnt so that she is unable to play the piano for a long time. The music was her last resort. This is why the loss is painful to her, because it means losing her soul. However, girl’s courage and patience help her to recover and even take the third place in a musical competition. This victory is accompanied by physical pain, which is her way of struggle and maturing.


The most crucial decision is to be taken by her at the end of the novel. At first, she decides to leave her native place and her father and start a new life in another state. However, she is physically unable to get out of the dust, which invokes insight into what she really needs to do. She understands that changing a place of living is not a real change, that this is just her futile attempt to escape from reality. Only inner transformation can truly influence external events, and this is the case with Billie Jo, who decides to stay by her father. She is able to forgive him and herself and to open a hidden resource of love and compassion, which makes her transfer from being a child to becoming a woman.


In conclusion, it is worth saying that the idea of the novel is quite reassuring, though the theme of adolescence is explored in a very challenging context. The author believes that hardships and loses are essential part of growing up, because “sterile” life and feelings cannot teach one how to survive and love genuinely. At the end of the novel the heroine finds strength to change herself and to become stronger and more affectionate.


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