Dreamland Burning from Jennifer Latham depicts two very different stories that intertwine over the course of almost 100 years. In the present, Rowan Chase discovers a corpse beneath the floorboards of her back house. In the past, William Tillman has a front row seat to the race riot of 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma that lead to the burning of the Greenwood community. This complex story of racism and bigotry is an uncomfortable one, but an important novel made even more so by recent events in the United States.
Warning: This book contains graphic racial violence, racial slurs, and (very briefly) attempted sexual assault.
This novel is written in a style that I find I either love or hate, switching back and forth between first-person narratives told by the main characters Rowan and William. This is one book that I loved it, as it made the transition between 2017 and 1921 flow far better than if it was a third person narrative. It added to the main mystery of the story: whose body did Rowan find in her backyard?
As the story progresses, there are major clues as to who the body might belong to, but it was not at all obvious which of the characters it could possible be. It’s a mystery first, but the bottom line of the story is that racism that should have ended long ago is still very much a part of many communities today.
The story is an uncomfortable one. But it is also a very important one.
The two main protagonists in the story are Rowan Chase of modern day Tulsa, and Will Tillman of 1921-era Tulsa. The two are very different characters that provide a different perspective on a string of events that directly affect each other without them even knowing it.
Rowan is seventeen, brilliant, and interracial (her mother is a prominent black lawyer, and her father is a white old money – I can’t quite remember what his job is as it’s not relevant). She is aware that she has lead a privileged life and comes to terms with how little she knows about her own black history and culture while she works in the “poor black neighbourhood”. At the end of the day, Rowan knows that her white father can’t help her all the time, and that the colour of her skin will mean more to people than her name does. It’s a harsh reality but Rowan is the kind of girl who will use every spec of her strength and self-confidence to bring justice to those who need it. She’s a force to be reckoned with and a wonderful character.
Will is a character who is not very likable, but does get better. He is racist and bratty despite not even being white himself. His father is white and his mother is Native and yet he picks a fight with a black man simply because he finds him offensive. At the beginning of the book, I personally hated him and just wanted to skip back to Rowan’s chapters. It takes a while for Will to pull his head out of his ass, but once he does, he learns quickly just how much his actions affect his entire community. One little fight leads to a death that could have been avoided. One little kindness leads to a whole lot of joy.
When it comes to non-major main characters, we’ve got quite the cast. Rowan’s best friend is James, a half-black half-Native aromantic asexual. He’s nerdy, funny, and understands the hardships that Rowan is dealing with as he deals with them himself. In the past, Will comes to know Joseph and Ruby, two black siblings from Greenwood that very quickly grow on him as if they were siblings of his own. Joe takes care of himself and sees to it his family has what they need. Ruby is a little girl with a sharp tongue and a sharper mind, forced to grow up quick.
All the characters play very different yet equally important roles in the story and are all incredibly well written.
As usual, this is where the spoilers are, so skip to conclusion if you care to avoid them. Also this section will discuss some of the potentially triggering content. I had very few issues with the book itself but I want to talk about the content first.
The book itself goes into fairly graphic detail at times, describing hangings, beatings, people being dragged behind cars until they’re bloody dust in the wind. The riot in William’s chapters is devastating as is the death of Arvin in Rowan’s chapters. It’s mindless genocide. It’s heartbreaking.
Although it’s not as prevalent as it would have been in the 20s, there are several different racial slurs that make a semi-consistent appearance in both the protagonists’ chapters. In the author’s note, Latham mentions that to exclude these words would be inaccurate but did not use them to, let’s say Tarantino standards. They are said. Characters react as they should. And the story moves on. It is nothing more than a dash of historical accuracy and helps showcase just how cruel the KKK and other racist organizations are. Then and now.
The two issues I very much had in this story involved Ruby and Will. Towards the end of the book, our main antagonist attempts to sexually assault ten-year-old Ruby because he sees her as a worthless little black girl. But she is a child. I felt that it was an unnecessary addition to the final confrontation, and Vernon is so terrible for the entirety of the novel that it went over the line. It is a moment that lasts about a paragraph while Joseph and Will move to stop him permanently.
The second issue is with Will. We meet him in a speakeasy being a racist little brat, jealous of his crush sitting with her black friend. They fight and Will’s lies that come out later result in Clarence’s death at the hands of the Klan. Sure, Will feels bad, and does his best to apologize to Addie for the loss of her friend, but in my eyes that isn’t nearly enough. Yes it is a catalyst event in the novel so I wouldn’t necessarily change it, but I do have a bit of a problem with Will’s motivations. It isn’t until after a black man has died because of his actions that Will starts to look at the other community as decent people. He should feel bad for going after an innocent man to begin with. 1921 was a different time, but that fact that it took a lynching to change Will’s mind upsets me.
Dreamland Burning is about social justice and the inequality people of colour, specifically black people, face in the United States. A black teenager finds a skeleton in her yard and the police distrust her. She is involved in an accident that results in a racist white man shoving a homeless black man into the street where he is killed. In the past, an entire community is burnt to the ground simply because of the colour of the residents’ skin. It’s a difficult book to read. I, myself, am a white person in Canada. I have the privilege of simply turning off the TV when I don’t want to hear about these things. I can avoid it. But there are real people like Rowan and James and Joseph who can’t avoid it. Who don’t get the choice to just tune out. It affects them every single day.
Jennifer Latham creates a wonderful atmosphere and a brilliantly intertwined story full of well written characters and heartbreaking disaster. It’s important to read this book, especially with so much injustice going on in the world, primarily in the States. Read this book. Learn some history. 5 out of 5.
Author: Jennifer Latham
Published: February 21st 2017
Publisher: Little Brown Books
Synopsis: Some bodies won’t stay buried. Some stories need to be told.
When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past, the present, and herself.
One hundred years earlier, a single violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what’s right the night Tulsa burns.