Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

Latham's dual narrative, Dreamland Burning is set in current day Tulsa and 1921 Tulsa. The first narrative is set in current day Tulsa, Oklahoma. Seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase is on her way to an appointment with the district attorney at the county courthouse. She's decided to walk because she wants think about what happened almost one hundred years ago, in 1921 when Will, Joseph and Rose ran north into the woods and fields to try to survive.

Rowan reflects back on what began the first Monday of summer vacation, the day workers arrived at her house. The house has been in Rowan's father's family since her great-great-grandfather, who founded the Chase oil company. Rowan's father Tim who is white, did not want to do anything to the back house, but her mother Isis who is black wants it renovated as a guest house.

The workers abruptly stop their work and quickly leave, talking about "old bones", "police" and "murder". Rowan decides to investigate and discovers a hole cut in the floor of the old house has exposed a skeleton dumped facedown in a roll of stiff fabric. She decides to call her best friend, James Galvez because the skeleton, despite looking like it's been there for many years, suggests foul play.

James arrives in his 1969 El Camino. He's part-black, part-Kiowa. The two of them check out the skeleton and find what looks like blood splatter on the shirt and pants and a gun. The gun has eight notches in it. Rowan also notices thin cracks in the skull as though it's been shattered. Just past the skull James pulls out a brick with dark stains and hair along it's edge. The edge fits perfectly along the fracture line in the skeleton's skull.

Before they can observe anything else, Rowan's mother returns home,finds them with the skeleton and calls the police and her husband. Rowan manages to take an item from the grave without her mother knowing. Officer Cooper quickly arrives and upon seeing the old skeleton, calls the detectives and the medical examiner. After questioning Rowan and James in the presence of her mother and father, the detectives decide to call in Genny Roop, a forensic anthropologist.

Later, in her room Rowan discovers the item she secreted from the skeleton is an old wallet containing coins from 1916 to 1921. This means the skeleton is of a person who was alive in 1921, the year the race riot occurred in Tulsa. Rowan doesn't know much the race riot except that "something had happened between a black teenage boy and  white teenage girl in a department store elevator, then things melted down outside the courthouse the next night. Most of Greenwood ended up burning and everyone pretty much tried to forget about it..." Rowan is puzzled as to how the skeleton could having anything to do with the riots because her family's house is in Maple Ridge, which in the 1920's was an area for rich white people.

When Rowan's job at a virology lab falls through, she finds work at the Jackson Clinic in North Tulsa, the poor section of town. There she meets Truman Atwell, a tall, tattooed man with a "black-toothed meth-addict smile." who works there as well as an interesting patient named Arvin. Rowan meets Dr. Wood who agrees to allow her to job shadow. Back at home, Rowan meets Genny Roop, the forensic anthropologist. Genny doesn't know if the skeleton is male or female but she tells Rowan that she will be able to tell once she unwraps it and removes the remains of the clothing. She knows Rowan took a wallet from the skeleton. When Rowan retrieves the wallet she discovers a brittle, yellowed slip of paper that is a receipt from the Victory Victrola Shop for payments made by a J. Goodhope. She returns the wallet but keeps the receipt as a starting point for her investigation into the mystery of the skeleton.

Rowan and James reconcile and begin to work on solving the mystery of the skeleton. They begin to research the history of Rowan's home and Rowan learns more about the skeleton under the back house. But as they delve deeper into the history of the 1921 race riot and the history of how Rowan's family came to own their house, they uncover the ugly reality of bigotry and hate. And they discover how the past can touch the future.

Alternating  with Rowan's story is William Tillman's narrative. Seventeen-year-old William lives with his father who has a Victrola store and his mother who is a full-blood Osage Indian. His mother is a woman of substantial means, receiving profit from oil pumped out of tribal lands. As a result William's father is having a three storey home constructed in Maple Ridge, a new part of Tulsa. William and his friend Cletus Hayes are at the Two-Knock Inn one March night drinking Choctaw ( a type of beer).William becomes intoxicated and when Adeline Dobbs, whom he's infatuated with arrives, he decides to approach her. Just then, a tall handsome man "browner than bootleather" sits down at Addie's table. William, furious and egged on by Clete, confronts the black man who introduces himself as Clarence Banks. He invites William to join them but instead William tries to punch Clarence who pushes him away, causing William to fall and fracture his wrist. Clarence leaves and Clete who believes the black man should be punished, goes to find a policeman. The policeman who has been forcing the speakeasy's proprietor to pay protection money tries to bully people into providing him with information. Clete who gives the policeman Clarence's name, insists that more be done.

Victrola Model 110
William doesn't reveal all the details of how he broke his arm and his father, angry at his son drinking, has him begin working in the family's Victory Victrola Shop. At school the next day, Addie confronts William in the cafeteria, slapping him on the face and informing him that Clarence might die. Further, she reveals that Clarence was whipped, beaten and left in the street. If he does die, Addie considers William to be just as responsible as the men who beat him.

 At the shop William meets Vernon Fish, a nasty white man who belongs to the Klan and who is attempting to recruit William's father. Vernon hates the area of Tulsa known as Black Wall Street where well-to-do blacks live and he feels William's father Stanley needs to prove himself.

William begins to feel badly about what happened to Clarence Banks and he decides to apologize to Addie but the apology flops. Instead he reveals his racist views which disgust her.

One day at the shop, a young black delivery boy named Joseph Goodhope tells William he wants to purchase a Model 110 Victrola.William takes Joseph and his sister Ruby into the back of the shop to try to complete the sale but they are discovered by William's father.Eventually the two make a deal  for Joseph to buy a Model 14, but William's father tells Joseph he won't deliver the machine until it's paid in full and if he misses even one payment he will be in default.

A week later William saves Ruby from being hit by a car. Ruby asks him to write a receipt for Joseph's payments on the Victrola which he agrees to do. Vernon shows William his Klu Klux Klan robes and his gun Maybelle, which he notches for every Negro he kills. William begins to suspect that Vernon and his friends beat Clarence and a trip to Addie's home confirms that Clarence has indeed died. As William gets to know Joseph and Ruby, he begins to view his Negro neighbours differently.

When a young woman accuses a Negro man of raping her in an elevator, racial tensions ignite and William finds he is forced to make a choice; follow his new ideals or run with the crowd and be part of a murderous riot.


Dreamland Burning is a historical mystery set in both the present and in 1921. Rowan Chase's narrative tells about her and her friend Jame's efforts to learn the circumstances behind the skeleton beneath the floor boards of their old home's servant's house. William Tillman's narrative tells the story of life in 1921 Tulsa leading up to the race riot of 1921. The finale of the novel sees the two narratives connect in the present linking William, Ruby and Joseph and Rowan.  Latham includes plenty of twists which keep her readers engaged and guessing as to which of the characters in the 1921 narrative ends up buried beneath the floor.

Dual narratives can be challenging because the writer has to establish both voice and setting for each; in this case a female character living in the present day and a white male character living almost one hundred years ago.  Latham succeeds in this regard creating authentic settings and realistic characters. She also manages to chronicle the journeys of both characters as they mature and change.

William Tillman begins his story as a young man filled with hatred towards a black man for attracting the notice of a white girl he's infatuated with. William's confrontation with Clarence and his failure to tell the truth ultimately leads to the death of an innocent black man. At first William attempts to rationalize what happened. He apologizes to Addie for upsetting her but not for what he did to Clarence."...I blathered on, saying it was a shame he'd touched her hand like that, and how I wished he'd known better and hoped there wouldn't be any permanent damage from the beating he took." This only disgust's Addie and puzzles William. "For shouldn't my apology have sufficed? And shouldn't any Negro man with half a brain know that no good could come of messing with a white woman in public?" 

However William begins to see things differently when he saves Ruby Goodhope from being hit by a car. He angrily tells Ruby she could have been beaten by the milkman and that she belongs back in Little Africa. But Ruby's fear at what could have happened causes William to see Ruby for what she is. "And suddenly it wasn't a colored girl I saw before me, but a girl, plain and simple." William doesn't like the way Ruby has been treated. "And I hadn't liked seeing Ruby cut down, never mind nearly killed. I hated it so much that I reached out and wiped away the teardrop slipping down her was the third time I'd touched a brown-skinned person."

At learning of Clarence's death, William feels remorse especially after he learns that Clarence was the son of the Dobbs's maid, Marie. It is at this point that William accepts responsibility for stirring up trouble that resulted in Clarence's death. Seeing Clarence's mother makes William realize he was someone's loved son. Later on William notes how differently his father treats Negro customers. If they are short a single dollar he takes back the machine whereas he's never refused to deliver to a white customer. As William spends time with Ruby and listens to her stories about Joseph, he comes to see them not as Negroes but as people like himself. He grows to respect Joseph whose hard work and honesty are shown each week as he makes a payment for the Victrola. As a result when the whites begin rioting, William is determined to help; he drives to Greenwood to rescue their maid, Angelina's family, to confront the hateful Vernon Fish who tries to force him to go killing Negroes and to save Joseph and Ruby and the Tylers.

Rowan's narrative also portrays her growth and serves to tie up all the loose ends, revealing what happened to William Tillman, to Ruby and Joseph and the connections to the past. Rowan's work at the clinic serves to make her realize that although some things have improved for African Americans, in some ways the same problems exist. James tells her that "The crime's different but the problem's the same. It's about power and prejudice and shit rooted so deep that people don't see it anymore. You know we're six times as likely to go to jail as white people right?" Later on Rowan's mother, on learning that she's working at the Jackson Clinic tells her they have tried to protect her from the reality of life for blacks. But she now tells her daughter that the lives of black people matter and that riots like the one in 1921 should not be forgotten. "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." This has a profound effect on Rowan, resulting in two significant decisions. First when she learns from Genny that the skeleton in their back house was likely black, Rowan becomes determined to solve the mystery of how it  came to be there. Secondly,  Rowan is involved in a car accident that results in Jerry Randall, a white man accosting her and then pushing her friend Arvin Brightwater into traffic resulting in his death. Randall used a racial slur before pushing Arvin and Rowan realizes that if Arvin had been white, he likely would not have been assaulted and died. Rowan decides that she must act, she must testify because otherwise Arvin simply becomes another black man whose death will be forgotten and no one held accountable.

Buildings burning in Greenwood
Latham's Dreamland Burning brings to life the terror of the worst race riot in American history, one that, until recently has been mostly forgotten.The city of Tulsa was booming in the years following the first World War.  It was known as the "Magic City" because of its new office buildings, beautiful homes, airport and railroads, and many modern conveniences. This boom was fed by nearby oil discoveries resulting in Tulsa being known as the Oil Capital of the World. The African American citizens of Tulsa shared in this boom, with many settling in the northern part of the city that became known as Greenwood or Little Africa. Greenwood became the most affluent black community in America at the time, a fact that did not sit well with the white people of Tulsa. The novel's title, Dreamland Burning, is a reference to the Dreamland Theatre in Greenwood that served the African Americans of the community. It was destroyed during the Tulsa race riot.

The ruins of the Dreamland Theatre following the Tulsa race riot.
On May 30, 1921, a black man named Dick Rowland was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman named Sarah Page in an elevator. Despite Sarah Page not pressing charges, Rowland was arrested the next day. Newspaper reports stirred up the white population who showed up outside the courthouse demanding the sheriff release Rowland to be lynched. One of the two white-owned newspapers, the Tulsa Tribune published an editorial titled "To Lynch Negro Tonight" which suggested that men were assembling to take Rowland and lynch him. The sheriff and his men barricaded themselves in the top floor of the courthouse to protect Rowland from the mob outside. Blacks from Greenwood arrived at the courthouse, shots were fired and they retreated to Greenwood. On June 1, 1921, white rioters looted and burned Greenwood to the ground, killing three hundred people in the process, and leaving many homeless and/or injured. No white person was ever held responsible for the riot, although the chief of police at the time, John Gustafson was removed from his position. The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was never spoken about and not taught in schools. This dark chapter in the history of the city was ignored until very recently.

In William Tillman's narrative, Latham presents some of the realities of that night to her readers; William and Joseph encounter dead Negros who have been burned, tortured and dragged behind cars on the road, they meet men out to kill any Negro they can find. Latham captures the fear the black citizens of Tulsa must have felt in the characters of the Tylers, Joseph and Angelina.

Overall, Dreamland Burning is a well written, authentic retelling of the Tulsa race riot of 1921. Latham takes this difficult event and weaves a murder mystery that is solved almost a century later, revealing long kept secrets. It's a reminder that the past is sometimes the key to the future.

Book Details:

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
New York: Little, Brown and Company      2017
365 pp.

1 comment:

Phil Sanderson said...

Thank you for this excellent summary. It's very helpful for a class I'm in exploring this novel. Great insight!