Monday, November 13, 2017

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

Mark Twain famously said (or, more likely, famously didn’t say), “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” This truth is made clear in Jennifer Latham’s searing young adult novel, Dreamland. What rhymes with all too much clarity in Latham’s story is how our nation continues to fall far short of its aspirational tale of freedom and justice for all. Dreamland is the tale of one city in two different time periods, one historical and one present-day. That city is Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the historical time period is one that has been whitewashed out of too many history books.

In 1921, the city of Tulsa contained a thriving African-American community known as Greenwood. Though Greenwood thrived commercially and culturally, its residents still knew what it was to be the “other.” Will Tillman also knows something of what it means to be “other,” as he is the biracial teenage son of a white father and a mother who is a full-blooded member of the Osage Nation. Working for his father brings Will into contact with the African-American community, albeit in quiet defiance of Jim Crow laws. But his work also brings Will into contact with other members of Tulsa’s white business community, members eager to bring the noxious ideals of the Klan to the forefront of Tulsa’s civic life. Students of history will already know what happened in Tulsa in 1921, but even they will benefit from the historical detail Latham includes in her fictional narrative. What happened in the city remains a national shame, while what happens to Will Tillman and Latham's other characters in 1921 remains a mystery.

In present-day Tulsa, Rowan Chase, herself a biracial teenager with an African-American mother and a white father, finds herself connected to this deadly mystery when the renovation of her family’s home uncovers a skeleton. While Rowan and her friend James seek historical answers, the present starts rhyming in ominous ways, and Rowan is forced to confront the racial tensions that still exist in Tulsa and elsewhere in our nation.

Skillfully switching chapters, narrators, and time eras, Latham convincingly demonstrates how American carnage is not a new phenomenon. The means and methods may have changed, but the racial injustice remains. Latham also convincingly shows how individual acts of courage and conscience can lead to larger positive cultural change, however slow and halting that change may be.

Novels matter—just because they aren't "true" doesn't mean they aren't truth.  And novels like Dreamland push history to rhyme on the truths rather than the myths, helping the arc of justice straighten and move forward, . As Rowan says early in the novel, the stories are there to be told—we just need the living to listen.  Dreamland is a story well worth listening to.

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