I don't really remember how it was before the dust, when the land was green with grass, and the air was clean and the sky blue. I was born in August, 1920, when the winter wheat was ripe. Daddy'd always wanted a boy, but he got me instead, a red-headed, long-legged girl with long hands and a hunger to play wild piano. He named me Billie Jo. By the time I was nine, he'd given up on having a boy and tried to make do with me. But in January, 1934, when I was 14, Ma told us she was expecting again.
Daddy won't ever leave this farm. He's like the ground itself, solid, rooted. Ma and I aren't like that. The dust could blow us away, and I wouldn't mind. I'd like to get out of the dust, away from the grit that gets into everything. It sifts through the walls, under the doors, and past the windows. At night I sleep with a damp cloth over my face so I don't breathe in the dust. Ma had her own way of coping with the dust. She was particular about how the table should be set. Plates upside down, glasses upside down, napkins folded around knives and forks. Food went on the table last, when we sat down. Then we'd shake the dust out of our napkins, and turn over our plates and glasses, leaving clean round circles in the dust on the table.
Her trees are another way she fights the dust, apple trees she planted when she and Daddy came to the farm. She carries water out to them, and every year they're covered with blossoms, all pink and white, and some with apples that grow round and red. And we make apple pie, apple butter, canned apples, and apples piled in a bowl on Ma's piano. That piano is the way I cope with the dust. When my fingers point at the keys, the music just flows out of them. I'm whole when I play, there is no dust, only me and the music. Ma doesn't like my music, she'd prefer me to play the sweet melodies that she does. Daddy got her the piano for a wedding present, and she draws him to her when she plays. Even after the last milking, when he's so tired he can't think of anything but the mattress under his bones, he'll come into the parlor and listen to Ma play. And it's beautiful music, but it's not my music. My music is wild and free and loud. And when I play, people stop and listen, and forget the dust, just the way I do.
But all that's over now, the music, Ma, my little brother. The fire changed all that. And there are things I can't forgive. I can't forgive Daddy for leaving the pail of kerosene by the stove. I can't forgive myself for what I did with that pail. And I can't forgive Ma for not being here now when I need her so much. We were a family, just three, almost four of us, and there was laughter, and love and music to keep the dust at bay. Now there are only two of us left, me and Daddy, and we sit and stare at each other in silence, unforgiving, each alone. I don't know if we can ever be a family again.
And still the dust comes, howling across the empty fields, seeping into the houses, stealing hope just as it steals the wheat out of the fields. Sometimes the rain follows, but never the kind our farm needs, soft and plentiful. It's just enough to keep our last bit of hope alive for one more day or month or year. Daddy will never leave this land. Maybe I will. I don’t know if it’s my home any longer. I want out, out of the despair, out of the loneliness, out of the poverty, out of the dust. But can I ever really leave?
This booktalk was written by librarian and booktalking expert Joni R. Bodart