MIA: Subject: Literature: Children: Karen Hesse: Out of the Dust (Abstracts)

Abstracts from

Out of the Dust

The way I see it, hard times aren’t only about money, or drought, or dust. Hard times are about losing spirit, and hope, and what happens when dreams dry up.

Written: 1997;
First Published: January 1999;
Publisher: Scholastic;
Transcription/Markup: Nate Schmolze;
Copyleft: Children's Literature Subject Archive (marxists.org) 2002. Material used under "fair use" copyright law.

Permission to Play

when Ma is busy in the kitchen,
or scrubbing,
or doing wash,
I can ask her something in such a way
I annoy her just enough to get an answer,
but not so much I get a no.

That’s a way I’ve found of gaining what I want,
by catching Ma off guard,
especially when I’m after permission to play piano.
Right out asking her is no good.
She always gets testy about me playing,
even though she’s the one who truly taught me.

Anyway, this time I caught her in the
slow stirring of biscuits,
her mind on other things,
maybe the baby growing inside her, I don’t know,
but anyhow,
she was distracted enough,
I was determined enough,
this time I got just what I wanted.
Permission to play at the Palace.

January 1934

Foul as Maggoty Stew

Arley Wanderdale said
the rehearsals for Sunny of Sunnyside
shouldn’t take me out of school
more than twice next week.

When I told Ma she got angry about
my missing school to play piano for some show.

Me and Daddy,
we’re trying our best to please Ma,
for fear of what it might do to the baby if we don’t.
I don’t know why she’s
so against my playing.
She says that school is important,
but I do all right in school.
I know she doesn’t like the kind
of music I play,
but sometimes I think 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.
Or of the music taking me
so far away one day

I’ll never come home.
Whatever the reason, she said I couldn’t do it.
Arley had to get somebody to take my place.

I do as she says. I go to school,
and in the afternoons I come home,
run through my chores,
do my reading and my math work at the
kitchen table
and all the while I glare at Ma’s back with a scowl
foul as maggoty stew.

March 1934

The Accident

I got

put a pail of kerosene
next to the stove
and Ma,
fixing breakfast,
thinldng the pail was
filled with water,
lifted it,
to make Daddy’s coffee,
poured it,
but instead of making coffee,
Ma made a rope of fire.
It rose up from the stove
to the pail
and the kerosene burst
into flames.

Ma ran across the kitchen,
out the porch door,
screaming for Daddy.
I tore after her,
thinking of the burning pail
left behind in the bone-dry kitchen,
I flew back and grabbed it,
throwing it out the door.

I didn’t know.
I didn’t know Ma was coming back.

The flaming oil
onto her apron,
and Ma,
suddenly Ma,
was a column of fire.
I pushed her to the ground,
desperate to save her,
desperate to save the baby, I
beating out the flames with my hands.
I did the best I could.
But it was no good.

July 1934

Christmas Dinner Without the Cranberry Sauce

Miss Freeland
was my ma
at the school
Christmas dinner.

I thought I’d be
the only one
without a
real ma,
but two other motherless girls came.

We served turkey,
chestnut dressing,
sweet potatoes, and brown gravy.
Made it all ourselves
and it came out
pretty good,
better than the Christmas dinner I made for my
at home,
where we sat at the table,
silent, just the two of us.

Being there without Ma,
without the baby,
wouldn’t have been so bad,
if I’d just remembered the cranberry sauce.
My father loved Ma’s special cranberry sauce.
But she never showed me how to make it.

January 1935

Finding a Way

started talking
about planting
the rest of the acres in wheat,
but then said, No,
let’s just go with what we’ve got right now.

And I’ve
been playing
a half hour
every day,
making the skin stretch,
making the scars stretch.

The way I see it, hard times aren’t only
about money,
or drought,
or dust.
Hard times are about losing spirit,
and hope,
and what happens when dreams dry up.

The tractor’s busted,
we don’t have the cash to fix it,
but there’s nothing saying Daddy can’t do the work
by hand.

It can’t be any harder than digging a hole
forty by sixty by six feet deep.

Daddy bought a second mule with Louise’s help.
Her betrothal gilt to him.
He walks behind the team,
step by step, listing the fields to fight the wind.
Maybe the tractor lifted him above the land,
maybe the fields didn’t know him anymore,
didn’t remember the touch of his feet,
or the stroke of his hand,
or the bones of his knees,
and why should wheat grow for a stranger?
Daddy said he’d try some sorghum,
maybe some cotton,
admitting as how there might be something
to this notion of diversification folks were
tallking about,
and yes, he’d bring the grass back
like Ma wanted,
where he wasn’t planting anything else.
He’d make new sod.
And I’m learning, watching Daddy, that you can stay
in one place
and still grow.

I wipe dust out of the roasting pan,
I wipe dust off Ma’s dishes,
and wait for Daddy to drive in with Louise,
hoping she’ll stay a little later,
a little longer,
waiting for the day when she stays for good.

She wears a comical hat, with flowers,
in December,
and when she smiles,
her face is
full enough of springtime, it makes
her hat seem just right.
She brings apples in a sack,
perfect apples she arranges
in a bowl on the shell,
opposite the book of poetry.
Sometimes, while I’m at the piano,
I catch her reflection in the mirror,
standing in the kitchen, soft-eyed, while Daddy
finishes chores,
and I stretch my fingers over the keys,
and I play.

December 1935