Book Review: Dreamland Burning

Dreamland Burning
Published By: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: February 21, 2017
Page Count: 365
Source: Purchased by Reviewer
Young Adult - Historical Fiction

History is so massive that nobody can possibly know every detail, but I pride myself on being as educated as possible on major events. I was in shock when I began reading this to find out that there was a riot in Tulsa in 1921 that is considered to be one of the largest racially motivated events in US History. Out of all the racial conflict I have studied in college and as a US History teacher, I don't think of Oklahoma when I imagine the Jim Crow South. I knew life wasn't great for non-white citizens throughout the US during the Jim Crow era, but I had no idea things were as bad as they were in Tulsa. A thriving black community was left in ashes and rubbles after a white mob decided it was their right to treat the black citizens of Tulsa anyway they pleased. Dreamland Burning is an important novel with many implications about race relations in modern society that I highly recommend. Prepare yourself though - this is not an easy read. My heart was battered and bruised by the end, but even days after finishing this one I'm still haunted by these characters and the true events that inspired them.

Dreamland Burning has two main characters: Rowan Chase and Will Tillman. Rowan lives in the current era while Will tells the story from 1921. Rowan is an interesting character as she is biracial; her father is from a wealthy white oil family in Tulsa while her mother grew up in the black section of town in a more modest household. Her mom is one of the best public defenders around and never lets anyone stand in her way, but she has unfortunately had to face racism and prejudice. She tries to shield Rowan from these harsh realities whenever possible, but she knows that she can't truly protect her daughter forever from ignorance. As the novel progresses, Rowan will learn that wealth and a well known last name don't always carry weight when your skin isn't the right shade. It's heart breaking that even today we still have people being treated unfairly because of their ethnicity.

Will is also biracial as his father is a white businessman and his mother is a Native American from the Osage tribe. Will deals with being called derogatory names and being treated as less than a white man on more than on occasion, but he is still much better off than his black counterparts in 1920's Tulsa. It doesn't stop him from engaging in some racist banter in the beginning, but Will evolves throughout the novel, and by the end, he is a good man with courage running in his veins. Will's father doesn't mind bending the Jim Crow laws if it means making a sale at his victrola shop, but if there isn't any profit attached he could care less about the plight of the black citizens of Tulsa. Will and his mother, on the other hand, are sympathetic and understand what it means to be judged because of your ethnicity. In fact, Will's mother is a wealthy woman, but law states that her husband controls her assets. I imagine that many Osage women found this a difficult burden. I don't know much about that tribe, but I did recently come across a book that details how often the Osage women were married to white men who stole their wealth and then murdered their wives. The whole situation is a nasty business that should never have happened in the first place. Will befriends a young black girl, Ruby, prior to the horrible events in the Greenwood section of Tulsa. He puts himself in danger to ensure that she and her family are safe from the angry white mob prowling the streets, but he soon finds that one white teenager may not be able to save what hundreds of grown men are bent on destroying.

Rowan and Will's stories converge when a skeleton is discovered on Rowan's property. She and her best friend, James, instantly spring into Inspector Gadget mode and begin their own investigation to find the identity of the bones. The pair spend their summer tracking down clues that all lead to the involvement of Will Tillman. I enjoyed watching the threads of the two narratives merge. I had my suspicions about who the skeleton belonged to and one of my theories proved to be true. Latham did a nice job of planting various trails concerning the body which kept me guessing.

Mystery elements aside the historical detail in this one is phenomenal. I have never been to Oklahoma (and what little I know about Tulsa was derived from reading The Outsiders), but I felt like I was driving the modern streets with Rowan and walking the sidewalks of the 1920's with Will. Latham has done meticulous research and truly given a sense of place and history to this novel. I also have a strong desire to learn more about these events, the Osage tribe, and Jim Crow outside of the Deep South. I also immediately purchased her first novel, Scarlett Undercover, the moment I finished this novel. If it's as good as Dreamland Burning, Latham will earn a permanent spot on my favorite authors/must read list.

I feel like this novel would make an excellent addition to a US History class or an English class. There are so many discussions points that high school students would find compelling. Why does ethnicity breed hatred? How can we fix wounds that have been deeply entrenched in our country since its founding? I don't have the answers to all of these questions, but I hope that in my life time we will find solutions. I can only imagine a country that would embody the vision of Dr. King where we are all judged on the content of our character and not the color of our skin.

One Last Gripe: I don't have one. This book is haunting and heart breaking. It makes me want to do everything in my power to make the world a better place. 

Favorite Thing About This Book: The theme of goodness overcoming hate

First Sentence: Nobody walks in Tulsa.

Favorite Character: Ruby

Least Favorite Character: Vernon

Some bodies won’t stay buried. Some stories need to be told.

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, the present, and herself.

One hundred years earlier, a single 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.


  1. Nice review. This sounds both interesting and frustrating. I don't think of Oklahoma in those terms either; however I'm in a bordering state (not in the south) and people are still pretty close-minded here. I'm all for making the world a better place as well.

  2. I added this to my library wishlist right now! I don't know much about the racial tensions during the 1920's...

  3. Wow, I had no idea about this historical event either. I love learning new things and seeing how history has shaped the present, so this would be a good book to pick up.


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