Out of the Dust
Billie Jo Kelby
Billie Jo Kelby is the strong and courageous protagonist, or main character, of the novel. She is 14 years old when the story begins, tall and slender, with red hair and freckles, and she loves apples. She is a dynamic character. Her experiences and actions cause her to change during the novel. We know how Billie Jo changes because Hesse narrates Out of the Dust in the first person, allowing Billie Jo to speak for herself.
When the novel begins, Billie Jo is making the best of her life despite the dust storms, depression, and drought. She attends school and does well, receiving the highest score in the state on the standardized state test for eighth graders. She also plays a "fierce" piano. Playing the piano is Billie Jo's passion. When she plays, she gets lost in the music. She is self-confident about her ability to play the piano and loves to entertain at the Palace Theatre with Arley Wanderdale and his band, the Black Mesa Boys, and singer and friend, Mad Dog Craddock. Billie Jo envisions herself moving away from the Dust Bowl someday; her means of escape will be her talent as a pianist.
After the accident, when Billie Jo throws the burning pail of kerosene out the door of the house and onto her mother, and after the death of her mother and newborn baby brother, Billie Jo's life changes forever. She is in extreme physical pain because her hands are badly burned. Her hands are scarred and curled up, making it painful for her to stretch her fingers and play the piano. Billie Jo is in emotional pain as well. She is grieving for the loss of her mother, her baby brother, and her ability to play the piano, which was to be her escape out of the Dust Bowl. Billie Jo has also temporarily lost her father. He has unknowingly abandoned her. He is grieving also and, as a result, is distant and self-absorbed, incapable of paying attention to Billie Jo. These losses contribute to Billie Jo's loneliness and isolation. Billie Jo also feels angry towards her father for having left the pail of kerosene in the kitchen in the first place. She wonders if she can ever forgive him.
Feeling guilty and despondent, Billie Jo runs away. Her journey, on a freight train, takes her to Flagstaff, Arizona. She confronts her misery and begins to accept herself as being "her father's daughter." She knows that "the dust is a part of her as it is a part of her father." She realizes that her father didn't turn his back on her intentionally; he was grieving as she was. Billie Jo returns home — able to forgive herself and her father. She is able to give herself permission to exercise her hands by playing her mother's piano once again.
Bayard is Billie Jo's father. He stands tall, has "blondy-red hair and . . . high cheeks rugged with wind." (Billie Jo closely resembles him.) Although Hesse does not directly reveal his thoughts and feelings throughout the novel, she portrays Bayard's character through the observances of Billie Jo. Bayard is an uncommunicative man. He was a dutiful husband and never falters in his role as a dutiful father to Billie Jo.
Bayard is a wheat farmer. He continues to work the farm despite the fact that he hasn't had a profitable crop in years. He never gives up hope that it will rain and the ground will become fertile again. In this way, Bayard is like Job, who is written about in the Old Testament of the Bible. Job was stripped of all his earthly possessions — his farm, his house, and his family. Even though he had nothing, Job never turned his back on God or blamed God for his misfortune. He maintained his faith and received great rewards. Like Job, Bayard is slowly losing his farm and has lost his wife and son, but he never loses faith that the rain will come again and his farm will prosper. He will never leave the Dust Bowl. Billie Jo understands that "he and the land have a hold on each other."
When Billie Jo returns home after running away, Bayard's relationship with her changes. He begins to pay attention to her and they work at becoming a family again. They begin to talk to each other and Bayard goes to Doc Rice to have the cancer removed from his skin, evidence that he is not giving up hope. Bayard meets Louise, a teacher at the night school where he was taking classes (just in case he needed something to fall back on), and he and Billie Jo include her in their family. He teaches Billie Jo that "you can stay in one place and still grow."
Polly Kelby (Pol)
Pol is Billie Jo's mother. Billie Jo describes her as being "long and skinny, with poor teeth, and dark hair always needing a wash." Although Hesse does not reveal Pol's past, Billie Jo implies that her mother sacrificed a great deal to live in the Dust Bowl with Bayard. She is an accomplished pianist and taught Billie Jo how to play the piano at the age of five. As Bayard's wife, she adapts. She understands and accepts her husband's uncommunicative nature and the conditions that accompany living in the Dust Bowl.
Pol is stoic — restrained and unflappable. When Billie Jo tells her that she has received the highest grade in the state on the eighth-grade standardized test, Pol's response is, "I knew you could." Billie Jo knows her mother is pleased about her accomplishment, but Pol doesn't show it the way other mothers do. Pol is also stubborn and proud. In spite of the constant dust storms, she works hard to keep her house clean. She scrub floors, beats the furniture and rugs, and washes clothes over and over again without seeming to tire of the repetitious, hard work. She grows two apple trees in the front yard, in the midst of the drought, and understands that crops besides wheat will have to be grown in order for the farm — and the family — to survive.
Pol suffers horribly after being burned when Billie Jo throws the burning kerosene out the door and accidentally onto her. She dies after giving birth to a baby boy, who also dies days later. They are buried together on the farm.
Louise will marry Billie Jo's father and become Billie Jo's stepmother. Louise is a "plain and honest" woman. She teaches the night school class Billie Jo's father takes, and keeps her father company when Billie Jo runs away on the freight train. Louise is understanding of the difficult times that Billie Jo and her father have been through during the past year. She accepts her role as a newcomer to the family and is patient. She doesn't push Billie Jo to talk, change, or do anything Billie Jo is not ready to do.
Mad Dog Craddock
Mad Dog is Billie Jo's friend. He was named Mad Dog because, when he was a child, he bit everyone. He is an attractive boy with blue eyes. Mad Dog lives in the Dust Bowl and works on a farm as a "plowboy." He has a "smooth voice" and sings with Arley Wanderdale and his band, the Black Mesa Boys.
Mad Dog respects Billie Jo and sees her as "Billie Jo Kelby," the person and musician, not the "motherless" child that others seem to see first. Mad Dog doesn't feel sorry for Billie Jo, and he is not embarrassed by her scarred hands or the accident that she was involved in that culminated in her mother's death.
Mad Dog escapes the Dust Bowl by getting a job in Amarillo as a radio performer. If Billie Jo's hands had not been severely burned in the accident, she might have followed in Mad Dog's footsteps and used her talent as a pianist to escape as well.