History on a loop: A review of “Dreamland Burning”

January 21, 2018

(Originally posted on my old book review blog, HilliterateBlog!)

Hi, bookish pals! So, I'm already regretting my use of the F-word (favorite) in my last review...because I want to use it again for this one. Someone better find me some crappy books to read soon, because somehow one amazing story after another keeps falling into my lap these days and my circle of favorite books is expanding at a rate that simply isn't sustainable.

Was that dramatic enough for an introduction?

In all seriousness, the book I'm reviewing today is truly incredible and everyone should give it a read, even if you're like, "Ugh KHill you say that about every book!" This time, it's extra true. ;)

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Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham is a young adult novel that is part murder mystery, part historical fiction, and all wonderful. Latham tells two intertwined stories — one in present day Tulsa, and one in Tulsa in 1921. The modern story is that of Rowan, a teenage girl with a white father and black mother who has had a fairly privileged upbringing and thinks little beyond her life of her big house, fancy school, and extensive list of extracurriculars. Things start to change for her when she discovers a skeleton in her backyard and sets out with her best friend James to learn who the victim was and why they were killed. As they investigate, Rowan takes up a summer job at a clinic in the "rough" part of town and begins to learn more than she'd ever realized about the racial and socioeconomic inequality and injustice that has always been just under her nose.

Every other chapter flashes back to the perspective of Will, a white teenage boy in Jim Crow-era Tulsa. Though his mother is actually Native American, the rest of Will's world is white. He works in his father's Victrola shop downtown, where they only allow white customers (though Will comes to learn of some literal back-alley deals with a select few black clients). His best friend Cletus is trying to start a junior chapter of the KKK. And when he sees his lifelong crush holding hands with a black man, Will loses his composure and sets off a chain of events that lead to the black man's murder. Not long thereafter, Will is wrapped up in the Tulsa "race riot," during which white rioters senselessly burn down thousands of black-owned homes and businesses and kill hundreds of innocent black citizens.

Throughout Rowan and Will's stories, readers see both characters' understanding of the world around them change profoundly. At the same time, we learn about a horrific part of history that has long been swept under the rug. Sure, we are all aware of Jim Crow laws and some of the terrible ways in which black Americans were treated in that time period. But Latham's novel brings to light one of the deadliest race "riots" (she also explains the problematic nature of this word, as it is often misconstrued) in our country's history — one that most readers, myself included, had never even heard of. One of the more impactful quotes from her work states 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." Seeking out those untold stories, the shameful parts of our history that we'd rather brush aside and pretend did not really happen, is the only way to learn from the past and move forward. The juxtaposition of Will and Rowan's stories demonstrates this, as we see how black and white Americans to this day commonly experience the world — the same city, even — in profoundly different ways. Racial equality has not been magically achieved a century after the Tulsa race riots, and half a century after the Civil Rights Movement. We have come far, but there is still a long way to go. And it is my opinion that books like Latham's Dreamland Burning, spaces that help us understand and reckon with our past and consider what can be done for the future, are important in making the progress that still needs to happen.

I encourage everyone to read this book and to seek out other such overlooked stories. And did I mention that in addition to being impactful and important, it's a super engaging read? Seriously, each chapter would end on some sort of cliffhanger and I couldn't put it down. Go pick up a copy and let me know what you think!

Thanks as always for reading and sharing, and let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations for me!

K. Hill

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