Monday, March 13, 2017

Not Recommended: DREAMLAND BURNING by Jennifer Latham

See note below about the red X.
Jennifer Latham's Dreamland Burning is about racism in 1921, and racism in the present day. The story is told from two points of view. Published by Little Brown, Dreamland Burning was released in February. I finished reading it last night. It has starred reviews from major review journals that I don't think it deserves. 

Let's start with the synopsis:
When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family's property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past... and the present.
Nearly one hundred years earlier, a misguided violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what's right the night Tulsa burns.
Through intricately interwoven alternating perspectives, Jennifer Latham’s lightning-paced page-turner brings the Tulsa race riot of 1921 to blazing life and raises important question about the complex state of US race relations – both yesterday and today.
That description doesn't tell us much about Rowan and Will. We know they both live in Tulsa. Rowan is the present-day character. Will is from 1921. Let's take a closer look at the characters in this story. There's a whole lot packed into Dreamland Burning. Bear with me. I recommend you take a look at Pamela Penza's review, too. She hits on similar points. Her review may be more helpful than mine. 

Let's dig in.

Rowan's mother is Black. Her father is White. They're wealthy. He's a doctor; she's a lawyer. Rowan goes to a private school. Her sidekick is James. He's "part-Kiowa, part-black" (Kindle location 308). The house Rowan lives in (where the skeleton was found) was commissioned (to be built) by Will's parents, back in 1921. It, as Will describes it, is "more mansion than house" (Kindle location 363). The money to build it is not from his father, who owns a Victrola store, but from his mother. She's Osage. Here's some of what Will says (Kindle location 361-363):
Mama, you see, was a full-blood Osage Indian, and as such had been allotted one headright—one equal share—of all profits earned from oil pumped out of tribal land. She’d also inherited her brother’s headright after he died in the Great War, and her own mother’s not long after that. Mama was a woman of substantial means.
When I first heard that Will was Osage, I wondered if the story would have anything in it about the Reign of Terror. The answer is no, because Dreamland Burning takes place just before the Reign of Terror. Here's the first two paragraphs about it, from the National Museum of the American Indian's page about it:
One of the most dangerous places in the United States in the early 1920s was the Osage Indian Reservation in eastern north-central Oklahoma. During a two-year stretch beginning in 1921, at least two-dozen Osage Indians died in increasingly peculiar ways, from suspicious suicides to explosions. Among the Osage, it came to be known as the “Reign of Terror.” 
This black chapter in U.S. history is an incredible story of oil, greed and murder. The Osage Indians went from poverty to prosperity when huge petroleum reserves were discovered on a corner of their reservation. But the sudden wealth also brought great misery. Perhaps the most gruesome was the crime spree known as the Reign of Terror – one of the first homicide cases for the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation. By the Bureau’s own account, the investigation into the Osage Indian murders remains one of the agency’s most complicated cases.

As Dreamland Burning begins, we're with Rowan (remember--she's in present day Tulsa). She is at the courthouse. She's thinking about how history "loops past the same mistakes over and over again." She hopes to stop one of those loops, by meeting with the district attorney. 

See, a few days prior to this opening scene, she had been rear-ended by a white man named Jerry Randall. She was stunned by the impact. As she tries to make sense of what happened to her, the man who hit her is snapping his fingers in her face. He says "you people" to her. Arvin, a homeless Black man she knows from the clinic she works at, saw the accident and walks toward her car. She sees the white man shove Arvin and hears him call Arvin "Goddamned nigger" (Kindle location 2061). That shove sends Arvin into the other lane of traffic, where he is struck and killed. The next day, major media is covering the story. There is fear that Tulsa will be Ferguson, all over again. Though she told the police what Randall said, he wasn't charged with a hate crime. So, she's meeting the DA to talk with him about that. She's trying to interrupt that loop of white people getting away with racist acts. 

Admirable, yes. Plausible, maybe. But! To me, though, this reeks of white saviorism. Not from Rowan, but from the author. With her book, Latham is attempting to create awareness of the riots that happened in Tulsa in 1921. She's using present-day racism to do it. She's created a Black/White character as the device to accomplish her goal. In several places, however, things Rowan says or thinks sound way more White than Black. She's growing up privileged, and there's a part where her mom tells her that her father (remember, he's White) will never understand their lives, but none of the places where Rowan experiences racism ring true. And, the idea that Rowan can pull off something that thousands of African Americans have tried to do in recent years... strikes me as arrogant. It strikes me that way because Latham isn't African American. Overall, Rowan's identity and actions as a Black teen feel superficial. 

That's a problem with Will, too, in 1921. He's supposed to be Osage, but as I read about him, he doesn't sound Osage, at all. He sounds White. When he experiences racism (he is called a half breed), or when he thinks about how his dad's friends call his mom a squaw, it feels superficial. It is just a thing that happens. There's no real reaction in him to any of that. And when he and his parents go visit his mother's grave at Pawhuska, and then his mother's cousins.... That, too, feels like a nothing. There's nothing Osage about any of it. 

That's the case, too, with James (Rowan's friend). He's part Black and part Kiowa, and there's one part where Rowan remembers him going to powwows with his dad, where they'd drum together. That ends (not in the story itself) when James told his dad he's asexual. His dad, apparently, wants nothing to do with him after that. We come away from that part of the story thinking this Kiowa dad is not an okay dad. Plausible, I suppose, and handy, too, because it means there's no need to do anything with that Kiowa identity. It doesn't matter to the story. It isn't necessary to the story. So... why is it here? 

That, ultimately, is my big question about Dreamland Burning. Why do these characters have these identities? As-is, they feel like tokens in this time of diversity in children's and young adult literature. 

Rowan is a savior in present day Tulsa, and so is Will, in 1921. In her review, Pamela Penza noted that Will's actions start the riot that takes place a few days later. Early on in the story, Will has gone to a speakeasy. He's drinking. The girl he is sweet on is there. She's White. He gets up to talk to her, but before he does, Clarence, a Black man whose skin is "browner than boot leather" comes in and sits with her (Kindle locations 156-159): 
Hate balled up inside me like a brass-knuckled fist. And when he slowly, slowly ran his fingertip across her skin, every foul emotion in the world churned deep down in the depths of my belly. Glancing sideways at a white woman was near enough to get Negroes lynched in Tulsa. Shot, even, in the middle of Main Street at noon, and with no more consequence than a wink and a nudge and a slap on the back. And God help me, that’s exactly what I wanted for the man touching my Addie. I wanted him dead.
That is one passage (of many) that makes him seem White. An Osage might think that way, too, so I don't mean to suggest Whites own all racism. They don't. But within a few days, Will goes from wanting Clarence dead to being fearful about the well-being of a little girl named Ruby. She's Black. The night of the riot, he plays a key role in getting the family of their Black maid to safety, and then he sets out to help other Black people, too, including Ruby. Saving them. It doesn't work. One day his Whiteness makes him racist; the next day he's saving Black people.

There's more. A lot more. Like, the near rape of Ruby. And, the undocumented workers. And, the references to Choctaw beer and Muscogee land. Go read Pamela's review. It is more comprehensive than what I've shared here in my focus on Will. I might be back to say more at some point.

For now, though, I'll ask (again), that writers not use Native characters as decoration in their stories. Native readers deserve more than that. In Dreamland Burning, it feels like an index card with some notes on it was dropped into the story. The Osage parts of this story are a convenience.

As such, I do not recommend Jennifer Latham's Dreamland Burning.

Update on July 28, 2018: 
See Edith Campbell's review of Dreamland Burning

Note about the red X on the cover: You know that old "a picture is worth a thousand words"? Brain research on image and the brain confirm that images are seared into our brain, while words trail far behind. I'm using a red X on book covers so that the image of that red X is in your brain. It will help you remember that the book has problems in it. I wish the words "Not Recommended" were sufficient.


Beverly Slapin said...

Thank you for these excellent reviews, Debbie and Pam. Wow! (By "wow!" I mean, "Why am I not surprised to see yet another book written by a white author who uses Black and Native characters of mixed parentage or ancestry in a coming-of-age story that takes place in the past and today, using historical acts of genocide--here, the Tulsa Race Riot and the Osage Reign of Terror--as mere backdrops?")

I encourage people to read THE DEATHS OF SYBIL BOLTON, in which journalist Denny McAuliffe, Jr., sets out to investigate his family's secret of his grandmother's death, including who killed her. It's a painful story--not a children's book--but it's for real and might give other white writers who think of engaging in junk such as DREAMLAND BURNING pause for thought--or maybe not.

Unknown said...

I've been thinking about this book ever since I read this review, and I find I'm uncomfortable with the writer creating(?) the precipitating incident and violence of these racist riots. Maybe she didn't? Maybe this is in the historical record? I don't know, but these were real riots that killed and hurt real people, and simplifying that into a fiction (as all fiction is simpler than reality) bothers me. I wrestled with the same issue when I wrote "Burning Girls," which ends with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Was I erasing the real pain and suffering of one of the dead by inserting my character? Ultimately I decided to do it--I believe there are five women killed in that fire who were never identified, whose stories we don't know and may never know, who have already been erased by that horror--so I decided somehow that made it less erasing? I'm still uncomfortable with my decision, to a degree, and I'm uncomfortable with it here, too.


Maya said...

I just finished the book yesterday and have been trying to put my finger on what it was that left me unsatisfied. Went back and re-read the reviews; I remembered they were positive, but I forgot how many were stars.

Still thinking on this, and I don't always feel so confident in the comments section, so will just say thank you. And thank you, Beverly Slapin for the book recommendation. I knew NOTHING about the Osage Reign of Terror or the oil head rights before reading this book, and I want to learn more.


Anonymous said...

@Veronica--No, she did NOT create the precipitating incident or the violence, as you would know if you had bothered to Google "Tulsa race riot." This tragedy is an important part of Oklahoma history and also American history, and the fact that you know nothing about it just proves more writers should address it.
@Debbie--I think you're reaching. I think the author made Will half Osage because she probably felt that she would be remiss in writing about Oklahoma at that time without mentioning the Cherokee or Osage--honestly, even if you write about modern-day Oklahoma, you're missing a big part of the story if you leave out the Nations who were there and still have headquarters there. I think she just wanted to tell readers about the Osage women who were murdered for their money, and that was how she worked it in. Maybe she took on too many topics for one book, but I am glad she tried since the Nations are a huge part of our history and heritage in Oklahoma, and one that gets capitalized on as a tourist trap too often by the state instead of as a legitimate history in which the government and white people were often oppressors or murderers.

Unknown said...

Anonymous, relax. The reason I didn't bother to look it up was because it was irrelevant to my point. You'll note I discussed a similar discomfort with a novella of mine that ends with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, an atrocity I know quite a bit about. The issue is with fictionalizing and thus simplifying real people's emotions and thoughts in the service of a narrative. I happen to enjoy historical fiction, but there's an ethical tension inherent in it that I think is worth bearing in mind. In this particular case, I wonder why it's the emotions and experiences of the racist white person the story is foaluzed around. Is really the person we need to create sympathy for?


Tiffeni Fontno said...

I'm Black and wrote the SLJ review. I star reviewed this book because it actually acknowledges what happened to African Americans & American Indians. Every book is not perfect, but I believe this is a great book for a teacher to use as a fiction/non-fiction compare and contrast. For teachers to have students look at these two historical events and research more of what happened or that a teenager actually learned that these events happened.
I get your concerns, but it's YA realistic/historical fiction. If it was non-fiction accounts I would be more critical, otherwise, it's fiction.