BOOK REPORT for Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

Cover Story: Big Face Split Screen
BFF Charm: Yay
Swoonworthy Scale: 1
Talky Talk: She Said, He Said
Bonus Factors: Awesome Grownups
Relationship Status: So This Is Love

Cover Story: Big Face Split Screen

As a rule, I generally don’t like Big Face covers, and as with all rules, there are exceptions. I think this one is elegantly done, especially because it features a WOC on the cover, alongside her 1920s counterpart. The Art Deco details and lettering alongside the antique photo treatment work to convey all the major plot points. Well done, cover designers!

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The Deal:

Rowan Chase is the wealthy daughter of a black public defender and a white oil heir. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with nothing on her summer agenda except for hanging out with her best friend and interning at a clinic. You know what they say about the best laid plans, however.

Her quiet summer takes a turn for the dramatic when a construction crew uncovers a century-old skeleton buried in her backyard. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, Rowan starts digging into the past and finds herself chasing an all-too-real paper trail that takes her straight into the heart of the little-discussed 1921 Tulsa race riots.

Jennifer Latham has written a brutal, multi-layered novel about injustices of the past, intertwined familial ties, and the complex history of race in America.

BFF Charm: Yay  

Rowan is such a great character: she’s smart, driven, and empathetic, but she also realizes and confronts her own privilege and biases. Like any teenager, she can be selfish and play fast and loose with the rules (the historian in me just about lost it when she removes evidence from the skeleton’s burial place). That’s balanced by a strong sense of justice and a willingness to explore uncomfortable topics. She’s loyal, too—to her best friend, to her patients at the clinic, and to her commitment to find the identity of the long-dead skeleton. Like so many of the bright young things I see in the news today, she’s representative of the current generation of woke teens fighting for social justice. I love her—and wish I’d had that awareness when I was her age.

Swoonworthy Scale: 1

There’s no romance in this book, which was a wise choice on Latham’s part. Fall in love with the characters and the history instead.

Talky Talk: She Said, He Said

Each chapter in the book alternates narrators: Rowan, and William Tillman, her seventeen-year-old 1921 counterpart. Both voices are completely of their own time. The alternating points of view, which I generally don’t care for, serve to propel the story along—Latham is skilled at tying the past to the present so that the reader can sense the common threads even when Rowan cannot.

The mystery of who is buried in Rowan’s backyard is only part of what makes Dreamland Burning so compelling. As Rowan narrates her search for answers and Will narrates his path through the racial firestorm that seized Tulsa, both characters have to dig deep into the whys and wherefores of what they’ve always believed. It’s not pretty, but Latham writes this journey so beautifully, with wry humor:

[I]t didn’t take long to wander into comment threads and forums full of crap…I couldn’t stop reading. Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, racist skinheads, neo-Confederates, the KKK—up until that morning, I’d had no idea those were all different things or that there were so many different ways to hate black people. Racists, as it turned out, were into diversity after all.

It’s not just a black versus white discussion, either—James, Rowan’s best friend, calls her out on her wealth and the fact that her white father’s name will open doors and smooth over things in ways that will never be available to him. Rowan’s mother talks to her from the perspective of a black woman, married to a white man, who knows that her husband will never fully understand what she and her daughter face, even though he tries. The poor clinic patients further pull Rowan out of her bubble—she isn’t just adjacent to indigent people and their struggles by virtue of being the daughter of a public defender. Now she lives it along with them.

On top of all that, it’s just deliciously-written historical fiction. Rowan and James’ search for answers takes them all the places that historians love to go: through title searches, personal interviews, libraries, forensic anthropology, and, most importantly, into a lesser-known part of history. History nerds of the world, put this on your TBR list and swoon along with me.

Bonus Factor: Awesome Grownups

Rowan’s world is full of awesome grownups, starting with her badass mother. How can you not fall in love with this woman?

She’s the kind of woman you want to stare at but don’t quite dare—striking, elegant, with a close-clipped Afro. Her makeup is always perfect, her clothes fit just so. She’s a public defender with a stubborn streak, and if you ask her, she’ll tell you she’s nobody’s girl and nobody’s fool. She is a lady.

Casting Call:

Jaylen Barron as Rowan

Younger Raviv Ullman as William

Relationship Status: So This Is Love

Book, I had a good feeling about you when I read your description (history, law, and social justice: three of my favorite things), but I had no idea that I’d fall in love so hard and fast. You were impossible to put down, even though I read the last third with my guts and jaw clenched. By the time I finished, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. You’re brutal and honest, complex and hopeful—the kind of book that makes other writers wring their hands and wonder if they’ll ever be able to write something so flawless, and makes readers want more of you.

Dreamland Burning is available now.

Jennie lives in San Francisco and has an excessive fondness for historical fiction, spreadsheets, turquoise sparkly things, and bourbon. When she’s not reading, writing, or writing about reading, she cooks obsessively, runs an Etsy shop, and thrifts for vintage everything.