(Book Review): Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

By Katy Goodwin-Bates

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham really caught me out in the best way. It begins with a privileged teenager, Rowan, in the modern day, talking about totaling her car, filling in college applications and dealing with the construction workers making her luxurious house even more ostentatious. The spanner in the works of Rowan’s otherwise lovely life, it seems, is the body the workers find in the foundations of the house. The narrative swiftly shifts to 1921 and William, whose sense of entitlement makes him no more appealing; within pages of the book’s beginning, we witness him picking a fight with a black man for daring to talk to the white girl William has a crush on. Who has no interest in William. But, you know, he’s white and so’s she, so, obviously, he thinks they’re made for each other.

I wasn’t good when the trouble started. Wasn’t particularly bad, either, but I had potential. See, Tulsa in 1921 was a town where boys like me roamed wild. Prohibition made Choctaw beer and corn whiskey more tempting than ever, and booze wasn’t near the worst vice available.

For a couple of chapters, I thought I was going to spend a few hours in the company of annoying teenagers, doing annoying teenager things. Man, was I wrong. It doesn’t take long for Latham to make it clear that she’s writing about something far more serious in Dreamland Burning. Rowan, the daughter of a black mother and white father, spends the book discovering the protection that her social and financial privilege has afforded her; in addition to undertaking some amateur investigative work, working at a clinic in an underprivileged area helps her to see that the progress from which she has benefited hasn’t reached everyone. It would have been very easy, in the current political climate, for this point to be labored, and it’s to Latham’s credit that it isn’t.

I’ve not read much historical fiction in the YA genre, which I am inclined to think is because there isn’t very much, and that’s a terrible shame; the only book I can think of with which to compare Dreamland Burning‘s structure is Crow Mountain by Lucy Inglis, which placed the modern and pioneer west alongside each other. In that book, as in this one, I found the sections based in the past wholly absorbing. Aside from the excellence of Latham’s story, I found Dreamland Burning hugely educational; I’d never heard of the Tulsa race riots before reading the book, and it’s this aspect of the chapters set in 1921 that made the book so compelling to me. The change in William’s character, as he is forced to confront his own learned prejudices, is fascinating, and builds to an intensely dramatic conclusion as the riot takes hold. The last third of the book is almost breathlessly fast-paced, as well as completely absorbing; nothwithstanding the relevance of the subject matter, Latham constructs a superb climax to both narratives.

“When people hear the word riot – white people, I mean – they picture black people running crazy in the streets, looting stores and homes and burning things. That wasn’t what happened in Greenwood. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying black folks weren’t angry or that none of them fought back. But it was white folks who rioted that night. They looted Greenwood, burned it to the ground.”

Ultimately, Dreamland Burning performs a very clever and important balancing act, juxtaposing historical injustice with current issues; at one point, Rowan’s mother seems to directly reference the Black Lives Matter movement by telling her, “the lives that ended that night mattered,” as the links between the two narrative strands start to become clear, but never contrived.

I found reading Dreamland Burning to be a completely rewarding experience; YA authors seem to be focusing their creative energies on matters of race and injustice in 2017, which is, I suppose, hardly surprising in light of recent political events. Between Dreamland Burning, the already released Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, YA readers will have have plenty of opportunities to educate themselves on both the history of racial conflict in the US and its present incarnation.

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