Lit Pick #2 – Lighting History on Fire in “Dreamland Burning”


Amazon Books

The cover of Jennifer Lantham’s novel, Dreamland Burning. It shows Will Tillman and Rowan Chase, the protagonists.

This book was recommended to me so many times that I gave in and read it, and I’m glad I did — Dreamland Burning is one of those books that sits with you long after putting it down.

The novel follows two protagonists, each in Oklahoma but a hundred years apart. In modern-day Tulsa, Rowan Chase is a typical girl who discovers a century-old skeleton on her family’s property. As she digs into the mystery, she uncovers hidden secrets about both Tulsa and herself.

A hundred years earlier, Will Tillman is a seventeen-year-old working in his father’s Victrola shop at the height of racial tensions in Tulsa. Reconciling the relationships he forms with the life he grew up in, Will begins to realize his role in deeply-segregated 1920s Oklahoma as it all culminates in the Tulsa race riots of 1921.

Before reading Dreamland Burning, I had never heard of the Tulsa race riots, also known as the Tulsa race massacre. For decades this incident was buried, despite being one of the deadliest instances of racial violence in American history. Only in the past few years have people begun to draw attention to the events of that 1921 night. Dreamland Burning, which features both present and past experiences with the Tulsa race riots, does an excellent job of bringing this incident to life, and is part of a broader movement to uncover shrouded history.

When I looked into the author, Jennifer Lantham, I was surprised to learn that most of her published works are about baking; her fiction is so compelling that it seems like something she’s done for years. She manages to take many of the harsh realities the book deals with and weave it into human moments — even in the middle of the darkest point of the book, there’s still bits like when Ruby, a character who originally disliked Will, warms up to him:

“‘You’re a good man, Will Tillman,’ she said. Which sounded silly and overserious coming from her, but wonderful all the same. And those words buoyed my spirits all the way back to the Model T, until the smoke-filled northern sky and the gravity of the task I’d undertaken pulled them right back down again” (page 343).

That being said, Dreamland Burning isn’t one of those books weighed down by prose. It’s refreshingly simple and reads almost like the characters are having a conversation with the reader. It also kept me wondering about the central mystery until the last few pages, especially about the identities of certain characters.

However, it does feel like there are parts of the story that are thrown away. Will, for example, is half Osage, but the only real purpose this serves is to explain his wealth (many Osage families were given land grants and money from the government in the early 1900s because oil was found on Osage land in Oklahoma). Other than the occasional throw-away line, little else is mentioned about his heritage. And Rowan’s best friend — who was so underutilized that I can’t even remember his name — was a throwaway character.

But despite its flaws, I recommend this book for casual readers, mystery lovers, and history fans alike. It’s available for purchase at The Boerne Bookshop and Amazon, or check it out for free from the public library. The school library doesn’t have any copies, but every Champion English teacher does. This book will break your heart and put it back together again — in the best way possible — and it’s one I think everyone should read.

Through intricately woven alternating perspectives, Jennifer Latham’s page-turner brings the Tulsa race riot of 1921 to life and raises important questions about the complex state of US race relations—both yesterday and today.

Not your genre? Here’s what else I’m reading (and recommending):
Fantasy / Sci-Fi – The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
Mystery – One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus
Adventure/Suspense – Code of Honor by Alan Gratz
Realistic Fiction – Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Romance – An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
Sports – Secret Race by Daniel Coyle and Tyler Hamilton
Nonfiction – Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer