Monday, May 11, 2009

Out of the Dust

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, published by Scholastic, 1997. Won the Newberry Award in 1998. It is a novel, composed of a series of poems in free verse.
I read this book primarily because it is set in the Oklahoma Panhandle in the 1930s and my next mystery is likely to take place in that location.
I just completed a four page essay dissecting the decision to focus more on an improbable, horrific accident than the natural disaster plaguing the area at the time.
I won't share that here, but I will say that this book is beautifully written. The white space on each page is reminiscent of the wide open spaces of the High Plains. Those who called that place home had a grit and tenacity that is hard to imagine in our world of creature comforts. It was a bleak time that challenged the toughest people. Severe drought, extreme temperatures, relentless dust storms and food shortages weakened bodies and drained spirits.
To this mix, Hesse added a tragic accident that centers around the main character's pregnant mother mistaking a pail of kerosene for a bucket of water. The mother dies a painful, agonizing death and the main character is badly burned. Her burns rob her, at least temporarily of the only thing that brings her joy - playing the piano.
I asked myself over and over why the author felt it necessary to heap tragedy upon hardship in a time when the simple act of breathing could be deadly.