Jennifer Latham’s Dreamland Burning is a hard book to read. No, the sentences are not difficult, but the subject matter certainly is. Rowan Chase is a sixteen-year-old girl living in affluent Maple Ridge, Tulsa, OK. She is biracial; her mother is a high-powered black attorney and her white father comes from a long line of Oklahoma oil barons. Rowan’s mother wants the old servants’ quarters behind the house renovated because her mother says, “I won’t stand by and let a perfectly good building crumble to dust.” The home has been in Rowan’s family since 1922, but no servants have lived in the servants’ quarters for many years.
Rowan wakes up to the noise of the construction workers tearing into the building. Just as suddenly as the work began, it stops. Curious, Rowan dresses quickly and goes to see what has happened. The workmen have uncovered a skeleton wrapped in a tarp under the floorboards of the building. The workers flee, leaving Rowan a bit bewildered about what to do next. She calls her close friend James to come over immediately without telling him why. She tells him, “You’ll see when you get here.”
Rowan and James examine the skeleton and discover a gun with a name etched into the gun. The two see thin cracks in the back of the skull as if someone had hit the deceased with a hard object. Rowan takes a wallet out of the back pocket and hides it in the waistband of her shorts. At that moment, the police arrive along with Rowan’s parents. Clearly, the body has been under the floor of the servants’ quarters for some time. The obvious questions haunt Rowan from the beginning: Who is the dead man? Who killed him? Who put him under the floor?
Latham tells the story through Rowan in present-day Tulsa alternating with William Tillman’s account of 1921 Tulsa. William, himself is bi-racial; his mother is Osage Indian and his father is white. William’s father owns Victory Victrola Shop on Main Street in Tulsa. In those times, Tillman could not openly sell to black customers; therefore, he would arrange for them to come through the back door after hours to purchase a Victrola.
Rowan and James become sleuths because the police do not wish to spend much time on such an old death. The case starts coming together when Rowan discovers a receipt in the wallet; that receipt contains dates and payments by Joseph G to the Victory Victrola Shop and also includes the initials W.T. These clues lead Rowan and James through Internet searches to information about the shop and its owner. The land title to Rowan’s home also turns up interesting information: Stanley Tillman and his wife Kathryn Elizabeth Yellowhorse built the home; if they lived in the home at all, it was only briefly, however, because they sold it in 1922 to Rowan’s great-great grandparents, Flowers and Ora Chase. Members of the Chase family have lived in the home ever since.
Readers learn a great deal about both Rowan and William, from their own points of view. William, himself Osage Indian and white, is racist himself. We see him learn from his mistakes, especially when he befriends Ruby, a ten-year-old black girl whose brother Joseph is buying a Victrola for their mother. Throw into the mix Vernon Fish, a totally despicable Ku Klux Klan member who owns Vernon’s Tobacco Store near the Victory Victrola Shop.
As I said in the beginning, the book is hard to read because Latham is true to the 1921 times, using the harsh words and actions that made me cringe with shame for the way people were treated. The story may be fiction, but it captures the time and the ugliness and horror of the riot, the senseless killings, and the blatant racism.
A Kirkus Review reminds readers that “for more than 50 years, Tulsa’s schoolchildren didn’t learn about the race riot, and many outside of Tulsa remain unaware today. This masterfully told story fills this void.”