Plot: This beautiful historical novel set in sparse stanza recounts the tragedy of the Dust Bowl through the eyes of a young girl whose life is scarred physically and emotionally by her own personal tragedy: Young Billie Jo’s pregnant mother is burned in a fire—an accident that the neighbor women blame Billy Jo for while ignoring her father’s role in the accident. Billie Jo finds no solace in her stoic father, or her piano playing, which is painful release for her burned and disfigured soul and hands. Like the farm boys who wander away from their homes in search of food and work, Billy Jo runs away, but returns when she realizes that she cannot run away from her problems, her past, or from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.
Reading Level: Grade 5 and older
Review: I wanted to read this book for some time, but, honestly, I found the poetic form off-putting. After several pages, I was hooked. With the stanza form, Hesse was able to impart the imagery of a young girl watching her naked, full-term pregnant mother bathing in a light rain as dust runs off her plump body, reminding the girl of a streaked watermelon. Gorgeous. This book was haunting and uplifting. Billie Jo’s story is not overshadowed by the historical treatment of the Great Depression or vice versa. The author provides insight into the root causes of the Dust Bowl such as overgrazing. The story is delivered like a journal, yet many of these poems, entries, or chapters stand alone. While many reviewers have recommended this book for ages grade 5 and older, personally, I shudder at the prospect of a 9- or 10-year-old reading this text alone without adult to provide historical context and perspective. Billie Jo’s mother’s brutal and slow death may not be suitable for younger readers, nor the mention of farm boys who left their families in wayward searches for work, only to die tangled in barbed wire fences and drowned by a dust storm.
Awards: Newbery Medal Honor; Scott O’Dell Award, ALA Notable Children’s Book