Study Guide

Polly Kelby (Ma) in Out of the Dust

By Karen Hesse

Polly Kelby (Ma)

Billie Jo's mom has been roughed up by the hard reality of life on the farm and, according to her daughter, isn't much to look at. She's worn and skinny, has bad teeth, and her hair is perpetually filled with dust. Nonetheless, Billie Jo has always been "dazzled by her" (13.1). It's easy to see why, too. Who wouldn't love having a mom who's a great cook, a talented gardener, and a killer classical pianist? Polly Kelby clearly has it all in the mom department.

Or does she? Throughout Ma's brief presence in the book, Billie Jo hints that there are unfulfilled dreams in her life. When she refuses to let Billie Jo out of school to play for one of Arley's shows, Billie Jo suspects that it's because she's:

just plain jealous / when I'm at the piano / and she's not / And maybe she's a little afraid / of me going somewhere with the music / she can't follow (15.3)

Since Ma taught Billie Jo how to play, she may feel like her daughter is doing more than she had the chance to—and though she may want this for her daughter, that doesn't mean she doesn't have complicated feelings to rear their ugly head too. And as Billie Jo comes right out and says later in the book:

I think once she had bigger dreams / but she made herself over / to fit my father (60.7)

Pro tip: If you make yourself over to fit another person, you're pretty much guaranteed to bump into some unhappiness at some point. We're not saying it's not worth it to compromise for the sake of a relationship, just that you should do so thoughtfully—and maybe if you love playing the piano, you shouldn't pursue a relationship that majorly gets in the way of your ability to follow that passion. Just saying.

Because Billie Jo narrates the story and Ma exits the plot pretty quickly, we don't know a whole lot about Ma. There are a couple of things we can safely assume, though.

First, before she got married, Ma was probably a highly cultured young lady, skilled in the piano and perhaps even well educated. When she married Bayard though, she gave up her dreams in order to support him on the farm—and based on Billie Jo's words, Ma probably feels a little bitterness and regret that she never got the opportunities her daughter is getting.

Ma also tends to be kind of guarded about her emotions, which can make her come off as kind of callous or insensitive. When Billie Jo gets the high score on the state tests for school, she comes home expecting her to ooh and ahh over the news. Ma's actual response though?

"I knew you could." (16.2)

Yup—this lady doesn't exactly pack on the warm and fuzzies. Although Daddy tells Billie Jo that getting emotional and freaking out over good news isn't Ma's "way" (16.4), Billie Jo nonetheless feels that Ma has belittled her accomplishment. In Ma's absence, though, Billie Jo does come to realize how much Ma did love her and the multiple ways she showed it. Phew.