A timely book about racism | Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham [ARC]

Dreamland BurningRowan Chase has a dead body on her family’s property. A brief investigation shows that the body was likely dumped there sometime in the 1920’s (almost 100 years ago) and Rowan is determined to figure out the story behind it. William Tillman is just another white teenage boy growing up in Tulsa during the Prohibition. After getting a black man killed for touching a white girl’s hand, Will starts to rethink how he feels about black people. On a Summer night in 1921 all of his new-found convictions are put to the test. While these two characters live in different times, their stories are unquestionably intertwined.

I have some mixed feelings about this book. As a minority myself, I have given a lot of thought about the representation of minorities and race in books (especially YA). I, personally, have a hard time sometimes when white authors write about these subjects as they don’t have the same personal experiences that a non-white person has had (regardless of how much research they’ve put into their book). Instead, I feel that we need more diverse authors to write about the experiences of diverse characters (you can read my whole post here). As far as I can tell from some Googling and website/blog reading, Ms. Latham is white (and I apologize profusely if this is not the case, but I haven’t been able to find anything that would indicate otherwise) so I’m not sure how authentically she can tell the story despite the large amount of research she put into the book. There was one part in particular that had me scratching my head a little. Geneva, the forensic anthropologist, tells Rowan (who is half-black, half-white) that she can tell that the body is most likely black due to facial structure. Rowan then has this internal debate about whether or not she’s offended at these “racist remarks”. Mmmm…maybe it’s just me, but I don’t find that offensive at all. It actually makes sense to me that different races would have different bone structure. My eyes are shaped differently than white people, so why wouldn’t my eye sockets be shaped differently as well? Other than a couple of other things like that, I felt that the author did a good job dealing with such a heavy topic.

So let’s actually get into the book. I thought Latham did a great job creating our two main characters.They were both likable and I think that’s impressive especially for Will as he has some racist tendencies due to the environment that he grew up in. You kind of want to hate him because of what happens in the beginning of the book, but then you just start to feel really sorry for him. He becomes really conflicted and his internal battle seemed pretty genuine to me. Rowan was a firecracker and a fun character as well. Her best friend was interesting but I do question why Latham chose to make him asexual as it didn’t really feel like it had an effect on who he was as a character–it felt more to me like diversity for diversity’s sake (which, again, I’m not a fan of).

I liked that the book had a bit of mystery to it. The book alternates between Rowan and Will so the reader ends up with quite a bit more information than Rowan as she’s trying to figure out whose body is in her backyard. It was fun and interesting for me to see Rowan making incorrect assumptions. Based on the information she has her deductions are quite logical, but we know that she doesn’t have the whole story. The reader is given clues from both the past and the present so I was able to figure out who the body was maybe around the 70% mark–but I think the author meant for us to figure it out at that point. The way the two story lines came together was also interesting and (for the most part) felt natural.

I can’t speak for black people, but as a minority I do appreciate that Latham has chosen to tackle this big topic of race and racism in America. While I think the book would have felt more meaningful if it had been written by a black author, it is apparent that Latham had done an extensive amount of research while she was writing. She doesn’t shy away from painting things as ugly as they were–she’s not pulling any punches here. This book has frank depictions of racism and the kind of cruelty that humans will inflict upon each other. Latham also illustrates the small types of racism that are still around today. Overall, I thought this book was well-done and I would recommend it for mid to older teens.

Overall Rating: 4
Language: Moderate. Specifically the n-word is used several times (along with other language), but I did not feel that the author used it excessively in the context of the book.
Violence: Heavy
Smoking/Drinking: Mild
Sexual Content: Mild. One brief, non-descriptive scene of attempted rape.

Note: I received this book free from The NOVL in exchange for an honest review.

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