Review: Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham


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It was probably quieter a hundred years ago, but that doesn’t necessarily mean better. I understand now that history only moves forward in a straight line when we learn from it. Otherwise it loops past the same mistakes over and over again.
– Rowan, “Dreamland Burning”

Awakening on the first day of summer—and her only day off before her boring internship starts—Rowan Chase quickly finds herself plunged into a mystery—whose body is buried in her backyard and how did it get there? As Rowan and her best friend James investigate, real life intervenes and Rowan’s internship plans fall through. Rowan finds herself working at a medical clinic in a rougher part of town, having to face prejudice she’s largely been sheltered from and that (white) Tulsa has largely tried to forget and pretend isn’t there.

Alternating with Rowan’s story is that of Will Tillman, a half-white, half-Osage (First Nation) teenager in racially segregated Tulsa in the days before and during the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots where whites brutally and without provocation destroyed the prosperous African American community of Greenwood, terrorized an entire community, and killed hundreds of innocent African Americans. Will gets to know an African American brother and sister named Joseph and Ruby Goodhope and, on the night of the riots, has to make choices about what he really believes about their worth as people

Told in alternating chapters, “Dreamland Burning” explores how choices can separate “good” people into both the best and worst of humanity

Expectations and Reality

I came to Dreamland Burning with some trepidation. From reading the summary I really wanted this book to be good. I know embarrassingly little (ok—pretty much nothing) about the Tulsa Race Riots besides vaguely that something happened where white Tulsa destroyed the black part of Tulsa in the 1920s.* In the last few years I have learned more about my own privileges and prejudices and have tried to make an effort to read more diversely—both non-fiction and fiction. Dreamland Burning provided another opportunity to grow and learn more while getting to enjoy a young adult fiction book that came highly recommended by Anne Bogel in her Modern Mrs. Darcy (“MMD”) book club.

Latham did not disappoint. Dreamland Burning raises questions of race relations both in 1921 as well as now. Interestingly, in a recent discussion with the MMD book club, she indicated that she originally envisioned the book as being solely set in 1921 with Will but the more she wrote, the more she saw history repeating itself. Just as white Tulsa saw African Americans die in 1921 and do nothing, so do white citizens today see innocent African Americans being killed in the streets and, largely, do nothing.

With that in mind, she added Rowan into her narrative. While Rowan herself is mixed race, her family’s relative wealth has insulated her from quite a bit until she finds herself unexpectedly working at a medical clinic in a poor part of town and comes dramatically face-to-face with a situation that sets off debates recently seen around Mike Brown, Philando Castile, and Sandra Brown. In her story Rowan is beautifully human—she makes mistakes, she avoids the spotlight when the reader might want her to just say something already. Latham treats her gently, makes her relatable, and the story is better for it.

What Latham did best

Latham’s choice to not make Rowan and her BFF’s James’s relationship into a romantic one was smart and welcome. The seriousness of the book wasn’t distracted by tension of will-he-won’t-he-kiss-me-please-oh-please (which, frankly, would have been off-tone in a book this serious and there’s enough tension in this book without it). It also enabled Latham to add another note of diversity. As you would expect from a book exploring the Tulsa Race Riots, the characters are racially diverse, but with the inclusion of James, an almost-adult who identifies as asexual, Latham was able to reflect sexual diversity in a way that felt authentic, eliminated very early any question of whether there would be romantic tension between Rowan and James, and mirrors the sexual diversity of most of us these days (whether we realize it or not). Latham didn’t set off fireworks with the announcement of James’s asexuality, but folded it neatly in an early description of him that also served to explain some of James’s own background and semi-estrangement from his father. This choice was skillfully made and even more skillfully executed.

Latham’s choices in Will’s story had similar nuance. Without spoiling the end of the book, Latham places “good” characters into situations where they have to choose who they’ll be and what they believe. She lulls the reader into thinking that she/he knows who is “good” and who is “bad”…until they aren’t. In telling this story, Latham shows the harm in being just a “little” prejudiced and how “good” people can very swiftly make choices that set them far on the other side of that line. Though set in 1921, these themes still resonate.

I also greatly appreciated Latham’s attention to detail. While the story is told in alternating chapters, there is more that connects Rowan’s and Will’s stories than just the body in Rowan’s backyard. Latham sprinkles her book with little gems that tie Rowan’s half even more tightly to Will’s. If you miss the little connections, you don’t miss the story but where the reader can catch them, they sparkle and highlight Latham’s skill as a storyteller. In addition, while I did not pick up on this, native Tulsans will apparently recognize many of the places she mentions—her effort at a little inside “nod” to her local readers.

But wait? A white author is writing about race?

Because her picture is not in the jacket of the book, I didn’t see a picture of Latham until I was about halfway through. I assumed that anyone who would be writing such an on-point book about race was herself a person of color—I was wrong. I am not myself a person of color so my judgment on this comes from my own limited perspective; however, the book did not seem to suffer from many of the cringe-worthy pitfalls found when other white writers attempt to bring to life the voices and experiences of people of color. With that said, no book is perfect. The main character is herself part white and wealthy, having grown up somewhat sheltered until she takes the job at the medical clinic. Similarly, Will is part white—while he suffers some prejudice for being part Osage (First Nation), it is nothing compared to how the black community suffers. From the interview, I was impressed with how aware she was of this tension and how seriously she took the duty she had to make Rowan and Will accurate as mixed-race White/Black and White/Osage. She indicated she had both African American and First Nation beta readers as well as having an outside consultant read a final draft from her publisher.

I was still left with a lingering question of whether people of color who read this book would see Will’s part of the story as another white savior story. It wasn’t as neatly wrapped up as other White Savior endings and I have not found criticism for Latham in this but I do not know how widely this book has been read since it is only recently published. Joseph and Ruby (the main characters of color in Will’s story) are presented with strength, dignity, and agency even in the midst of the riots and, because of this, the book did not read to me as problematic in that regard.

Who should read this book?

While this book addresses serious and weighty themes, Latham presents the material in a way that feels age appropriate for young adult readers. She strikes a balance in the violence of the Riots—they are not sugarcoated nor is it vague what is happening—however, her descriptions are never gory. For authenticity, she does use the N-word in dialogue. In a recent interview, she indicated that she had her eleven year-old read the draft and, as a parent, felt comfortable with eleven and twelve year-olds reading the book as long as they have parents who read with them and can process the serious themes in this book.

Rating and Recommendations

I gave this one four stars though a bigger YA fan would likely rate higher. The side-story of Will’s mother as an Osage who had to have a guardian to “manage” her wealth inspired me to go ahead and start Killers of the Flower Moon next from my TBR pile. That review should be up next Tuesday. For readers interested in “book flights,” I recently finished Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson and would recommend that book (another YA) with this one. While I am just starting it, Latham herself recommended The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas as well as American Street as other excellent (older) YA books to pair with books on these themes if you want to read more.

*A note about language—while the incidents of the nights in 1921 are called the “Race Riots,” that language is accurate only so far as it describes what white Tulsa did. The African American community of Greenwood did not riot and largely fled or hid in terror from the rampaging and rioting white community bent on destruction. I refer to the events as the Race Riots, only because that’s the most common name, though it does not fully reflect reality. Latham explains this in more detail in her Author’s Note in Dreamland Burning. To put faces on the youths who lived this story, the yearbook of the 1921 Senior Class from Booker T. Washington High School–the school that should have been having their prom the night of the massacre–is available online.

Notes
Published February 21, 2017 by Little, Brown (Instagram @littlebrown)
Author: Jennifer Latham (Instagram & Twitter @jenandapen)
Date read: June 16, 2017
Rating: 4 Stars

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