Study Guide

Billie Jo Kelby in Out of the Dust

By Karen Hesse

Billie Jo Kelby

The fact that we're eavesdropping on Billie Jo's diary makes it pretty clear that she's the main character. That's right: Each chapter/poem is a journal entry, which means we get to be firsthand witnesses to Billie Jo's joys, struggles, and perseverance. Her diary is also a little frustrating, though, because she often isn't completely honest with herself or forthcoming about the details of events in her life. So consider yourself warned: With Billie Jo running the show, remember to pay close attention and read between the lines.

Apple-Loving Artist

Billie Jo's interests and pastimes give us the clearest window into her values and personality. Her favorite activity is playing the piano, which she learned from Ma when she was five years old. Now a teenage piano prodigy, local musician and businessman Arley Wanderdale has been recruiting her to play professionally. Billie Jo's love for the piano clues us into her creativity and perseverance (prodigy or not, no one gets good at the piano without some serious practice), as well as her fondness for her mother.

Plus playing piano is a great source of comfort and peace for Billie Jo amidst the uncertainty of the Depression; early in the book, she describes it as a completely natural act that is "supremely / heaven" (6.2). Amongst so much chaos, the piano offers a break from the harsh realities of life in the Dust Bowl.

Billie Jo is also a great connoisseur of apple-related dishes, and the harvest from Ma's apple tree is a favorite yearly event. Her appreciation for this staple in her life demonstrates an ability to look toward brighter days, no matter how much dust swirls around and clouds the sky.

There's Gotta Be Something More

While Billie Joe is generally content with life at the beginning of the book, we can see hints that she longs for a time when she can see the world outside the Panhandle. She becomes frustrated with Ma when she won't give her permission to play piano shows, enjoys a brief, thrilling summer going on tour with Arley and his band, and is secretly jealous of her friend, Livie Killian, who moves away to California, saying that she is "wanting my feet on that road to another place" (3.6). In short, Billie Jo longs to get out of Dodge.

If Billie Jo has itchy feet early in the novel, this desire for another place gets kicked into overdrive after the accident. Daddy's unwillingness to get treatment for his skin cancer, the growing failure of the farm due to the drought and dust, and watching more of her friends, like Livie and Mad Dog, leave home makes her more desperate than ever to escape her life. With Ma gone, and unable (or unwilling?) to play the piano, Billie Jo feels less and less attachment to the place she calls home.

Perhaps her dissatisfaction with where she is is best shown through Billie Jo's response to art. She feels frustrated when Miss Freeland is in a production of Madame Butterfly and she seems to be the only person who hasn't heard of the play, and she becomes depressed when an art exhibit to raise money for the local library ends and the paintings are returned to storage. Madame Butterfly and the art exhibit both remind Billie Jo that there's a whole wide world out there, and she's stuck in the land of dust and silent dinners with her dad.

Parental Problems

Billie Jo's complex relationship with both her parents is another significant part of her character. Like any teenager, she butts heads with both of them and doesn't really feel like they understand her.

She's always felt that she disappointed Daddy by being a girl, a divide that's hung between them seemingly forever. While Daddy tries to raise her to do farm work and other boy stuff, it only makes her a hardened tomboy who still believes she falls short of the mark. And while she has a lot in common with Ma, Ma's resistance to her playing piano publically often makes their relationship deteriorate into a classic parent-child standoff (15.4). Ma wins—she's the parent, after all—but each time she does, Billie Jo resents her a little bit more.

Insecurity and Self-Doubt

You'd probably be hard-pressed to find a teenager who hasn't felt at some point like they're not good enough, and Billie Jo's no exception. The way she describes herself in the first chapter clearly shows that she's got some issues:

a long-legged girl / with a wide mouth / and cheekbones like bicycle handles (1.3)

She gets off to an okay start—but when she describes part of her face as looking like a bicycle, well, it's safe to say that Billie Jo shows some serious insecurity.

Pretty much all teenagers deal with insecurity, but precious few of them experience the depth of pain and loss that Billie Jo does in this story. With her hands injured by the fire, she seems to sink even deeper into despair. Playing piano occasionally gives her the endorphin rush it once did, particularly in Chapter 69—"The Competition"—when she practices like a madwoman for a talent show at the Palace Theater. She wins third prize, which proves that in spite of everything, the girl's still got it—and yet, just a few chapters later, she blows a performance at the elementary school, and later, at graduation.

Here's the point: Billie Jo repeatedly blames her inability to play on her hand injuries, even citing after the contest that playing "hurts like the parched earth with each note" (70.6). But is this really true? Her prize-winning effort at the talent show demonstrates that she hasn't lost the ability, and once she does decide to get back at it and start using her hands again, she seems to regain her desire to play.

What this tells us is that Billie Jo goes through a season where she lets her insecurities deepen and mix with her pain, and she just plain wallows in it like a pig in mud. It's only when she finally leaves home and realizes what she's left behind that she can begin to put her life back together.

Not only does she do this, but we'd actually argue that she comes out of her funk with a clearer sense of who she is than ever. She learns to communicate with her father, reacquaints herself with her mother's legacy of the piano, and looks forward to a new stage of life for her family. So just as we see in her adoration of apple season, Billie Jo ultimately shows incredible resilience and strength, pulling herself back up to a can-do attitude when it comes to life, and remembering to enjoy the good things as they come.

Which is smart. Especially because we've got a hunch that the dust will be back before she knows it—they don't call it the Dirty Thirties for nothing.