Major themes in Out of the Dust include loss and forgiveness, family, and the environment. Hesse's thematic messages convey the power of the human spirit to endure and transcend the pain that accompanies adversity and tragedy.
Throughout the novel, loss and grief (which is a reaction to loss) are predominant themes. Billie Jo and her father suffer multiple losses throughout the novel. Billie Jo loses her best friend, Livvie, when Livvie's family moves to California to get away from the dust. Billie Jo loses her mother and newborn baby brother when they die. Billie Jo misses her mother terribly. She cleans the dust and mud out of the house because her mother would have cleaned if she were alive. She regrets that she put off doing things with her mother, such as going through her boxes of memorabilia. She thinks about talking to her mother about daily occurrences, but then, "she remembers," remembers that her mother is dead. People blame Billie Jo for her mother's death, causing Billie Jo to lose self-respect (another loss) and to blame herself.
Billie Jo's hands are badly burned as a result of the accident. She tried to beat out the flames on her mother. Her hands are scarred; to stretch her fingers to play the piano is agony. Billie Jo experiences the loss of her ability to play the piano and the loss of her self-esteem. People no longer see Billie Jo the talented pianist, but instead they feel sorry for her and see the "poor motherless thing."
Billie Jo is grieving and when people grieve, it is natural for them to feel anger. Billie Jo is very angry. She says,
I am so filled with bitterness,
it comes from the dust, it comes
from the silence of my father, it comes
from the absence of Ma.
She is motherless and she blames herself and her father. She is angry because her father has distanced himself from her. She is angry because she can't play the piano the way she used to. And she is angry because she can no longer depend on her piano playing as her ticket out of the Dust Bowl.
As Billie Jo works through her grief, she begins to accept what happened. She knows now that her father was not able to reassure or comfort her because he was grieving, too. And, the reason he left his wife's bedside to go to a bar while she was sick was because he couldn't bear the pain of losing her. Billie Jo understands that her father did the best he could at the time. In spite of overwhelming losses, Billie Jo is able to forgive herself and her father.
Billie Jo's father is also able to forgive. He loses his wife and newborn son when they die. He loses his crops and his livelihood because of the drought and dust storms. And he loses his daughter when Billie Jo runs away. While Billie Jo is gone, her father gains insight into their situation, resulting in reconciliation with his daughter and a redefining of their family.
Family is another major theme in the novel. Billie Jo's family changes dramatically as the story progresses. Her mother and father always wanted more children; finally, Billie Jo's mother is pregnant. They do "normal" family things. Her father farms and her mother cooks, bakes, and makes sure that Billie Jo gets her homework completed. After the accident, after Billie Jo's mother and newborn baby brother die, there is a huge void in her life and in her father's life. They sit across the table from each other, but it is as though they are strangers. They are family, but their family is going through a transition. The family they knew has been destroyed. When Billie Jo returns home after having run away, she and her father talk. They realize they are connected. They redefine their relationship and their family. They finally become comfortable with each other again and are able to include Louise, the woman Billie Jo's father becomes engaged to, in their family.
The environment and the effect the environment has on the people living in the Dust Bowl is a third major theme. The drought that takes place in the Dust Bowl and the resulting dust storms cause poverty because the wheat crops are destroyed. The poverty, in turn, decreases morale and causes the people to become depressed. Living in the Dust Bowl under these conditions creates tremendous hardships. Animals die because there is nothing for them to eat or drink and there is dirt and dust everywhere. Billie Jo's father exhibits a sense of humor commenting that, "the potatoes were peppered plenty," and how lucky they were because they were having "chocolate" milk to drink. The "pepper" is dust, and the milk looks like chocolate milk because of the dust.
The environment also causes people to be fearful. Billie Jo expresses her fears when she asks,
Where would we be without
somewhere to live?
Without some work to do?
Without something to eat?
And yet, in spite of the extremely difficult living conditions, the people stay and farm the land — and they are happy. Hesse portrays the pain that exists in life and the joy that human beings are capable of feeling when the suffering is over and they are able to forgive and be surrounded by the love of family. By setting the novel in the Dust Bowl, Hesse allows readers to appreciate their own present-day environment.