review: Dreamland Burning


Update: So many people are reading this review that I’m editing to include my review of a much better book about the Tulsa Massacre

title: Dreamland Burning
author: Jennifer Latham
date: Little Brown Books, 2017
main characters: Rowan; William


 There were a lot of blacks in Oklahoma in the 1920s. In fact, there were more all black towns in OK than anywhere else in US. It was call the Promised Land for African Americans who moved there during post reconstruction years. Some also came with Native Americans who were forcibly marched there during Trail of Tears.

Following World War I, Tulsa was recognized nationally for its affluent African American community known as the Greenwood District. Native Americans and African-Americans became wealthy thanks to the discovery of oil in the early 1900s on what had previously been seen as worthless land. Greenwood and the surrounding residential area was referred to as “Black Wall Street.” It was the wealthiest black community in United States. It had restaurants, movie theaters, jewelry stores and hotels all owned by African Americans and it had a professional community of doctors, lawyers, furriers, undertakers and others.  In June 1921, a series of events all but destroyed the entire Greenwood area.

The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 started with what newspaper reported as something happening between a black man and a white women elevator operator in her elevator. He says he tripped and fell into her, she says she was assaulted. He was arrested, and black World War I vets rushed to the courthouse to prevent a lynching. Thesewere difficult time for black WWI vets who had just experience the Red Summer of 1919. White mobs looted the homes and businesses before they set fire to the community. For years black women would see white women walking down the street in their jewelry and snatch it off.” Historians state that the issue was economics. More than 35 blocks were destroyed, along with more than 1,200 homes, and some 300 people died, mostly blacks.

American citizens were even attacked by airplanes during this massacre.

The National Guard was called out after the governor declared martial law, and imprisoned all blacks that were not already in jail. More than 6,000 people were held by the OK National Guard, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, some for as long as eight days. There are unsubstantiated rumors of a mass grave. Survivors gained no reparations for their losses.

This is the book’s backstory. Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham. an historical novel told in two voices and set in two different time periods. Both stories evolve around events relating to the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Rowan, the protag in the present is home when skeletal remains are found on her family’s property. She’s intrigued to find out the identity of the remains and brings along her sidekick, James to solve the mystery. She also explores the history of her hometown and the racism that still exists there.

William is the protag from the 1920s. He gets caught up in a questionable situation at the beginning of the book that eventually costs a young black man his life. It takes him a while to realize and admit his own guilt and as a consequence of his actions, he has to spend the next few months working at his father’s shop. While working, here he witnesses his father’s business practices and the inequities faced by Blacks in the community. When the riots break out, he wants to save (as in savior complex) his Black friends and for once he finds the gumption to speak up.

Rowan lives in contemporary times with her parents. William lives in 1921.Both are mixed race, Rowan is African American and White while Will is Osage and White. Rowan admits her family has money on p. 10, (ten pages in!). On p11 we find out her mother is black and on p. 39, it is revealed that Rowan’s dad is White. Although Rowan’s mother is an attorney, it’s her white father’s family name that has the power and privilege.

On p. 170:

“ If I get arrested for impersonating you, your mom had better go all pro bono on my ass”, James said.” [to Rowan]

“Don’t be stupid. If you get arrested, Dad will make a phone call and fix it.” (Spoken by Rowan)

P 14: We find out Will’s friend, Clete is White because he’s dancing “with a pretty, brown skinned girl. For when it came to the fairer sex, a sweet smile and pair of shapely legs were all it took to turn him color blind.” They’re in a speak easy when the apple of Will’s eye, Addie, walks in with a man who is “tall and handsome, muscled all over, and browner that boot leather” found on p. 16. Not just leather, but boot leather; a rather pejorative way to describe this young man who turns out to be the son of Addie’s maid who is stopping through to tell his mother goodbye before leaving to work on the spring cattle drive. I’m not sure why he’s described in such a way.

Rowan has a friend, James who is mixed race (Black and Kiowa) and asexual (p 20). He is a very poorly developed character who comes off as Rowan’s lackey. He does most of her grunt work and is at her beck and call.  He is working with Rowan to uncover the identity of the corpse. The numerous mixed-race characters never explored their identities, all of them seemed to choose one identity over the other, rendering the other part invisible. Making them mixed race brought nothing to the story, other than allowing for another diversity box to be checked.

On p. 32, Vernon Fish calls William a ‘half breed’ in his father’s presence and no one reacts. This slur goes unchecked a few more times until p. 101. Vernon calls William a “half breed and a mongrel”. Although Will still acquiesces to Vernon’s demands, his narrative voice actually admits that “blood rushed loud in his ears.” For the first time admits it makes him feel bad. This internal reaction was a long time coming.

p 73:  Rowans narrative voice: “I passed the Dollar General store that had been on the news after a 73 year old reserve deputy shot Eric Harris in the back nearby.” This is an actual event that occurred in 2015. Eric Harris was fatally shot.

Racial slurs are abundant. I don’t think they move the story forward as much as they create problematic situations for the author.

James begins on p. 92:

“I put my head down and tried to push past [Ruby] saying “You’re no ghost, just a pesky little monkey.” Which made her scramble back ahead of me, scowling [my emphasis; a nod to scowling monkeys] to beat all.

“Joseph says when white folks call black folks monkeys it shows they’re ignorant.” [Spoken by Ruby.]

No other character in the book addresses racism the way Ruby does even though her comments are in that time both impudent and a threat to her physical safety. As if that slip from Will weren’t enough, on p. 95 he says to Ruby, “Go on back to little Africa where you belong.” He’s referring Greenwood. It’s called ‘Little Africa’ by whites. But that phrase rings of ‘go back to Africa where you belong’. Ruby realized that in the book as well. She was hurt.

In another scene, Ruby’s older brother, Joseph is purchasing a Victrola from Will’s dad. This storyline exhibits the power whites held over blacks and how blacks could work to resist. On p 149, Joseph and Will are talking and Ruby interrupts. Will asks her to leave in order to keep her safe from something nearby. Ruby tells him “ain’t nobody gonna catch me, Will,” Then, Pop and Vernon were in the storeroom. And Ruby was gone” Ruby is this story’s magical Negro, suddenly appearing and disappearing a few times in the book.

If the writer is going to take the chance to bring grit to the story with these racial epithets, then why not talk about this as a massacre? Why use her characters voice, Rowan’s mother, to justify calling this event a riot rather than a massacre? Why project herself through this black character in that way? Why not explore he true nature of the relationship between Will’s parents? Was he after her head-rights, as most white men who married Osage women were at that time? With so many biracial characters, I’m perplexed why their self-identity wasn’t explored. Only Rowan, a main character seems to have issues with her identity and this feels more like an out for the author who would not have struggle to write a Black character.

If racial identity is present, it’s delivered with hesitation several pages into the story. That should be delivered up front when we meet the characters.  Needing loans to buy victrolas, sparse homes, and African Americans working as maids and delivery boys just doesn’t fit along with the prosperity of the black community in Tulsa at that time. Why not explain the true wealth of Tulsa’s black community and the friction this caused in Tulsa? Whites did not like seeing Blacks with that much wealth.

On p 136 the forensic anthropologist working to identify the corps that was found describes how skull features can be used to determine racial identity. In most cases. She determined the victim here to be African American but, it turns out that the actual victim was not visibly identifiable as African American. This story line led Rowan to question this as scientific racism but, the conclusion reached was implausible. His skull would be no more visibly identifiable than he was.  Oops!

When I read this passage on p 141, “The lives that ended that night mattered. It was a mistake for this city to try to forget and it’s an even bigger one to pretend everything’s fine now. Black men and women are dying today for the same reasons they did in 1921. And we have to call that out, Rowan. Every single time.” Although Rowan’s mom speaks this to her mixed-race daughter, I think this is a story for white readers. I think this is the author stating the message of the book and it may sound re-affirming from a black character but, not when the overall product is steeped in Whiteness, when it fails to empower either the African American or the Native Americans present in the book. It really didn’t matter that Will or James parent was Native. There was no texture created by Rowan’s parents being different races.

If you read this book solely for literary value, you’ll be pleased with it. The pacing, particularly between the time periods is good. Latham successfully manages the suspense and effectively uses her setting.  Not so much as a critical reader. She focuses on the theme of black lives matter throughout her book but, it’s delivered as a message for white readers. It’s impossible to preach that black lives matter while leaving racial slurs unquestioned and to view so many of people from a deficit perspective and that perspective is based in a false narrative.  Blacks in this city were wealthy!!

Native Americans are window dressings in the story, placed there with no context. The Osage had a very important context in Tulsa and that was ignored in this historical novel. Of course, one cannot address everything, but there’s neither justice nor equity provided by dabbling in diversity.

African American end up dead (Arvin a black man w/disabilities and Joseph) or are tropes (Ruby and Rowan’s mother). I do not even know what to make of the antagonist, Vernon Fish.