Gr 5 Up?In the midst of the Dust Bowl, 13-year-old Billie Jo loses her mother and unborn brother in an accident that she is partly responsible for and burns her own hands so badly that she may never again find solace in her only pleasure?playing the piano. Growing ever more distant from her brooding father, she hops on a train going west, and discovers that there is no escaping the dust of her Oklahoma home?she is part of it and it is part of her. Hesse uses free-verse poems to advance the plot, allowing the narrator to speak for herself much more eloquently than would be possible in standard prose. The author's astute and careful descriptions of life during the dust storms of the 1930s are grounded in harsh reality, yet are decidedly poetic; they will fascinate as well as horrify today's readers. Hesse deals with questions of loss, forgiveness, home, and even ecology by exposing and exploring Billie Jo's feelings of pain, longing, and occasional joy. Readers may at first balk at a work of fiction written as poetry, but the language, imagery, and rhythms are so immediate that after only a few pages it will seem natural to have the story related in verse. This book is a wonderful choice for classrooms involved in journal-writing assignments, since the poems often read like diary entries. It could also be performed effectively as readers' theater. Hesse's ever-growing skill as a writer willing to take chances with her form shines through superbly in her ability to take historical facts and weave them into the fictional story of a character young people will readily embrace.?Carrie Schadle, New York Public Library (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This intimate novel, written in stanza form, poetically conveys the heat, dust and wind of Oklahoma along with the discontent of narrator Billy Jo, a talented pianist growing up during the Depression. Unlike her father, who refuses to abandon his failing farm ("He and the land have a hold on each other"), Billy Jo is eager to "walk my way West/ and make myself to home in that distant place/ of green vines and promise." She wants to become a professional musician and travel across the country. But those dreams end with a tragic fire that takes her mother's life and reduces her own hands to useless, "swollen lumps." Hesse's (The Music of Dolphins) spare prose adroitly traces Billy Jo's journey in and out of darkness. Hesse organizes the book like entries in a diary, chronologically by season. With each meticulously arranged entry she paints a vivid picture of Billy Jo's emotions, ranging from desolation ("I look at Joe and know our future is drying up/ and blowing away with the dust") to longing ("I have a hunger,/ for more than food./ I have a hunger/ bigger than Joyce City") to hope (the farmers, surveying their fields,/ nod their heads as/ the frail stalks revive,/ everyone, everything, grateful for this moment,/ free of the/ weight of dust"). Readers may find their own feelings swaying in beat with the heroine's shifting moods as she approaches her coming-of-age and a state of self-acceptance. Ages 11-13. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Gr. 6^-9. "Daddy came in, / he sat across from Ma and blew his nose. / Mud streamed out. / He coughed and spit out / mud. / If he had cried, / his tears would have been mud too, / but he didn't cry. / And neither did Ma." This is life in the Oklahoma dust bowl in the mid-1930s. Billie Jo and her parents barely eke out a living from the land, as her father refuses to plant anything but wheat, and the winds and dust destroy the crop time after time. Playing the piano provides some solace, but there is no comfort to be had once Billie Jo's pregnant mother mistakes a bucket of kerosene for a bucket of water and dies, leaving a husband who withdraws even further and an adolescent daughter with terribly burned hands. The story is bleak, but Hesse's writing transcends the gloom and transforms it into a powerfully compelling tale of a girl with enormous strength, courage, and love. The entire novel is written in very readable blank verse, a superb choice for bringing out the exquisite agony and delight to be found in such a difficult period lived by such a vibrant character. It also spares the reader the trouble of wading through pages of distressing text, distilling all the experiences into brief, acutely observed phrases. This is an excellent book for discussion, and many of the poems stand alone sufficiently to be used as powerful supplements to a history lesson. --Susan Dove Lempke
Gr 5 Up?After facing loss after loss during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Billie Jo begins to reconstruct her life. A triumphant story, eloquently told through prose-poetry. (Sept.) (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.