Latham, Jennifer, Dreamland Burning. Little Brown & Co., 2017. 371p. ISBN 9780316384933. $18.99 MS, HS, OT ****
Rowan Chase is the half black-half white daughter of an oil magnate family in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She wakes up one morning to learn that while workers were preparing for construction on the servants quarters behind her house they uncovered human bones, and with it a mystery from the 1920s. Together with her best friend James (half-black and half-Kiowa) Rowan takes it upon herself to find out what secrets were buried in her backyard. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, readers hear the story unfold from the perspective of Will, a white boy living in Tulsa in the 1920s. He tells about his childhood friend Addie, a white girl found in the company of Clarence, a black boy at a juke joint. Most everyone is fine with this except for Cletus, a racist onlooker. Things get ugly, the law is called, and the personal turmoil that unspools for these teens is set against the backdrop of the Tulsa race riots and the burning of the vibrant black neighborhood of Tulsa called Greenwood.
This carefully plotted novel straddles realistic fiction, mystery, and historical genres beautifully. Certainly the chapters set in the 1920s are the more compelling parts of the book and teen readers will be engrossed by the narrative of racism and hatred faced by teens who in many ways feel familiar. And it is nice to see the story of Tulsa’s race war and the white destruction of Greenwood here as it is an important part of black history that is underrepresented in YA literature. Having this history discovered by an affluent mixed race contemporary heroine effectively invites readers to discover and learn alongside her. It also invites discussion about the ways that culture has shifted around race and privilege and oppression and leads readers to consider the ways that things have improved and also how many problems remain. For a book with many things going on, I was pleased that James was immediately introduced as asexual putting to rest any thought readers might have about a distracting romance in the contemporary setting and squarely focusing the book on the mystery and social questions. The subject matter by nature involves violence but all of it contextually appropriate. Without sex or drug use or cursing this book could easily be handed to middle school readers who want to delve deeper into the relationships between contemporary experiences of race and black history.
Andrea Mullarkey, Berkeley Public Library