If you’re like me, the first time you knew anything about the 1921 Tulsa race riots – or race massacre – was this summer, when Trump scheduled a rally in Tulsa on June 19 (Juneteenth). Before that I was mostly unaware of this history. What happened in Tulsa is a perfect example of the way our country covers up history it doesn’t like.
On May 31 and June 1, 1921, mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It has been called the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, destroying more than 35 square blocks of the district—at that time the wealthiest black community in the United States. As many as 800 were injured, and no one knows how many were killed (Oklahoma only recorded 36 official deaths but that number is certainly far higher). Greenwood was not rebuilt and no reparations were made to the estimated 10,000 people who were left homeless. And no white person was charged with a crime.
Much of what happened was covered up and never talked about. Author Latham, who is white, lives in Tulsa and was inspired to write this novel by visiting the Greenwood cultural center and listening to and reading the interviews of witnesses. Only in recent years have there been coordinated efforts to research and memorialize this tragedy. A Washington Post article published just this week talks about the current effort to identify and locate the bodies of those who were killed.
Dreamland Burning begins in the present day, where a skeleton is found in the Chase family home during some construction. Rowan Chase, a biracial teenager who is privileged and fairly sheltered, finds a note buried with the skeleton and begins to investigate. At the same time, she begins a job in a clinic in the poor part of town, and this begins to open her eyes to injustices that exist today, as well as the history of 1921.
The story shifts back and forth between Rowan and William, a young man working in his father’s Victrola shop in 1921. The Klan’s influence is growing. William’s father is white and his mother is a wealthy woman from the Osage tribe (if you haven’t read Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, you definitely should). William meets a young black man, Joseph, and his younger sister Ruby, when Joseph comes to the Victrola shop. These are William’s first acquaintances who are black, and Latham does a nice job developing William’s growing awareness of racism and the dangers facing the black community.
This isn’t a subtle novel, but I liked that both William and Rowan start out fairly uninformed and develop in character over the course of the novel. It seemed realistic that Rowan could track down the family that owned her home in 1921, and that there would be elderly relatives that know something of its history. I was interested in her experiences in the clinic, and I could sympathize with her feelings of discomfort. There are some weaknesses. I was bothered that Rowan withheld important evidence from the authorities. And Latham throws a lot of issues into Rowan’s story without giving them much depth.
William’s storyline is stronger, and I appreciated the way William gradually comes to see Joseph and Ruby as friends. There are some truly harrowing occasions as William understands that people’s lives are at stake and he’s forced to do things he never imagined. He’s heroic but also an uncertain, terrified teenager. Joseph and Ruby are not well developed as characters, however; we see their experiences through William’s eyes.
The book, which is marketed as young adult, felt a little short to me, but that’s because I wanted to know so much more, and that’s not a bad thing. Latham doesn’t try to cover everything that happened in that two day period, but she touches on quite a bit of it, and the characters are able to explain much of the history. I found her descriptions of Greenwood – a prosperous, thriving neighborhood — vivid and haunting.
This story about the Tulsa massacre was absolutely terrifying and felt very real. So even though it isn’t a perfect novel, and it’s aimed at younger readers, if you want to learn more about this devastating historical event, I highly recommend it. It’s a good jumping off point to learn more, and a good story in its own right.