My anticipation for this book was high, and so my disappointment is more acute.
I don't want this to become a polemic on "who can write what." I am not at all qualified to host that discussion, much less even participate in it. The best I can do is listen and learn from others who, as members of marginalized groups, have had little voice in publishing up until now (and still, as we go forward, progress is made in inches, not in miles). However, I do feel uncomfortable with the idea that a white author would write a book that draws on both Black and Native viewpoints, and that this book is The One to reveal The Truth about the Tulsa Race Riot* to the general reading population. At least, that's the praise that review journals have heaped upon this book. But why not a Black author? (I'm being rhetorical; I know we could talk for a long time about racism and marginalization in publishing as a microcosm of society et cetera, et cetera).
Now, I don't have anything against the author--I know very little about her. I didn't particularly love her last book, Scarlett Undercover, mostly because of how Islam was more of an accessory than a meaningful part of the main character's identity. And now we have Dreamland Burning, a book written by a nice white lady who felt that the truth about this awful injustice had to be told. Praise of this book and, by extension, the author, smacks of the white savior trope.
Let me do a quick synopsis and include some of the quotes that jumped out at me.
Dreamland Burning is a book told in two voices and from two different time periods. Rowan is a mixed-race girl living in upper-middle class Tulsa in the present day. Will is a mixed-race boy living in Tulsa during the oil boom in 1921. The book opens with construction workers unearthing a skeleton on Rowan's property. Who was this man? Who bashed his head in with a brick? Why does his revolver have notches in it?
Rowan calls her best friend, James, over, to look at the skeleton. Even though they are kids who grew up with C.S.I. as education about what not to do at a crime scene, Rowan takes a wallet from the skeleton and hides it in her room. When Rowan's mom, a successful lawyer, returns home, she freaks out and calls the cops, which actually seems like the sensible response. Eventually, an anthropologist comes to the site to examine the body and attempt to identify it.
Flashback to the early 20s: Prohibition has taken hold of the country, and speakeasy barkeeps in Tulsa have to liberally grease the palms of the police to stay in operation. Will and Cletus are looking for a good time and some bootleg liquor, so they head on over to the Two-Knock Inn. While there, Will spots Addie, the girl he's sweet on, talking to a black man, who gently strokes her hands. Already well in his cups, Will staggers up to the man and tells him to stop touching his girl. Addie stands up for her friend, Clarence, but that doesn't stop Will from throwing a punch. Defending himself, Clarence knocks Will over and he breaks his wrist. Later, a gang of white men badly beat Clarence, and Will's racist act of drunken machismo sets in motion events that lead to the Tulsa race riots of 1921.
Unfortunately, Will is also supposed to be our hero, who, through painful self-discovery and soul-searching, decides that he's not really racist because he befriends a pair of Black siblings: Joseph and Ruby.
I'm sorry, what? No.
Although Will's encounter with Clarence at the speakeasy is fictional, it leads directly into the riot/massacre/destruction of Black property and the wanton taking of Black lives. But throughout the book, Will just seems puzzled at the events that occur. He seems genuinely nonplussed that Addie is mad at him, and even more so after Clarence dies of his injuries. Will plays the innocent good boy to a degree that's grotesque. The only acknowledgement of his role in the events occurs when he leaves town and changes his name, presumably so he can't be found by the Klan. That's not enough. That's not nearly enough.
I guess we are supposed to sympathize with Will because he, too, is treated badly because of his parentage. His mother is Osage and his father white, and many of the neighbors refer to him as "half-breed." An encounter with a particularly nasty fellow who puts Will down for his coloring comes right after he finds out what happened to Clarence as a result of the fight. It's a literary bait-and-switch: Will did a very bad thing, but look here! People also treat him badly! Feel bad for him! Haven't we been over this? Just because people are racist to you does not give you leave to be racist to others.
However others may see him, Will doesn't seem to care very much about his mother, her rights, or the Osage Nation. Here's what he says about her:
"Mama, you see, was a full-blood Osage Indian, and as such had been allotted one headright--one equal share--of all profits earned from oil pumped out of tribal land. She'd also inherited her brother's headright after he died in the Great War, and her own mother's not long after that. Mama was a woman of substantial means. A year earlier, and just ahead of the US government declaring that every Osage without a certificate of competency would need a white guardian to manage their money, Mama gave in to Pop's wheedling and purchased a parcel of farmland from a Muscogee Creek woman at the southern edge of Maple Ridge ... Then , when that fool-headed legislation passed in March of '21, Pop was appointed Mama's guardian, and Mama lost what little voice she'd had in the project to begin with."Will tells us about how his mother was stripped of her rights and her position as an adult to be placed in the care of her white husband with as much emotion as if he were reading the phone book. Sure, he calls the law "fool-headed," but he doesn't stand up for his mother or question why his father didn't fight for his wife's rights.
Speaking of his father, Will's dad is an odd one. He married a Native woman, but then took all her money, but still claims to love her, but then he joins the Ku Klux Klan. People ride roughshod all over his wife's reputation, and good ol' Pa just takes it. When Vernon Fish, the same charming fellow who called Will a half-breed, threatens Pa for marrying an exotic woman, Pa says nothing. Will comments:
"Though he [Pa] didn't say it, he knew perfectly well that Mama's Osage roots ran deeper into the soil under our feet than his or Vernon's either one, making her about as exotic as an Oklahoma redbud tree. Why, not thirty years prior, the land Tulsa sat on had belonged to Indians: Muscogee Creek, Cherokee, and Osage ... Far as I could tell, Indians and part-Indians like me had just as much right to be there as anyone. More, even."This statement really confused me: of course Will and his mother have the right to be there: it's their land that was taken from them! But for the rest of the book, Will doesn't refer to being part-Native. It's a flashy way to introduce him, but doesn't have much substance.
Because of the headrights and oil boom, Osage people became very, very wealthy. This made white people very angry, so they decided to make a law to give white people--husbands, fathers-in-law, lawyers--access to these headrights. For some, this wasn't enough. White people started murdering Osage people in what became known as the Osage Indian murders, or the "Reign of Terror." There's no discussion of this in the book--just a paragraph. In the present, Rowan and James wonder if the anthropologist's claim that she can decipher race from bones is true. James theorizes that the bones could belong to a Native person, and explains:
"So, anyway, a lot of white men married Osage women just to get control of their fortunes. Then a bunch of those women started dying in weird ways--drowning in shallow creeks, falling out of third-story windows, turning up with bullet holes in their skulls. No one really looked into the deaths until the FBI finally stepped in. After the white guardians had inherited the women's money and headrights, that is."I like how Rowan is all "whatever" about women being murdered. And by "like" I mean loathe. But anyway, as far as I can tell, it wasn't just women who were murdered, and please don't make it sound like the FBI swooped in and fixed things and yay, no one hated the Osage any more.
"Figures," I said. "But what does it have to do with the skeleton?"
The crux of Will's redemption arc hangs on his friendship and literal salvation of Joseph and Ruby during the riot. These two characters were extremely interesting, unlike Will and Rowan, who act like didactic guides instead of real people. Considering that this is supposed to be a book about the Tulsa race riot, why is the past time period not narrated by a Black person? Why do we see the actions through the eyes of a half-white protagonist? To be fair, I am glad that the author did not attempt to write two Black characters and crash and burn; however, seeing the events from a non-Black point of view distances readers from the horror of what happened. And in the end, Joseph and Ruby are only able to get out of danger because of Will. Thank goodness there was a (half) white person just hanging around needing redemption! Whew!
The resolution of the mystery of the bones has a weirdly melodramatic quality about it--something you'd read in a Victorian potboiler. Anthropologist Lady identifies the bones as being those of an African American, and via some sleuthing, Rowan and James find out what really happened.
As Will is helping Joseph and Ruby, he's confronted by Vernon Fish, the awful man who likes to call him "half-breed" and who puts notches on his gun for every Black person he kills. Will shoots Vernon, and he and Joseph bury the body under quicklime. Vernon may have looked white, but his mother was a Black woman raped by a white sharecropper, giving birth to two sons: Vernon, who passed as white, and his brother, who had a darker skin tone. Vernon grew up not knowing that he was mixed race, and when he found out, he had this apoplectic fit and killed his brother. He uses his self-loathing as fuel for his racist hatred and murderous predilections.
I just thought it was strange that the author would end the book with the "twist" that a Black man looked white enough to "pass." It's a weird variant of "Surprise! You're my long-lost daughter!" or "Shocker! You're adopted!" which are tired old tropes that really need to just go away. This is how Will describes Vernon's death:
"And it's poetic justice of the grimmest sort, I suppose, that for all his hatred and bile, Vernon Fish ended up just another murdered Negro whose death never merited looking into--or even remembering."I am very uncomfortable with the phrasing "just another murdered Negro"--perhaps Will is trying to be sarcastic, but it comes off as him completely dismissing the systematic targeting and killing of Black Americans in the post-Civil War era.
I will note that James, Rowan's best friend, is asexual, and this may be the first ace mixed-race character I've read about in a YA novel (if I recall correctly, James is Black, Native, and white).
I'm sure a lot of people aren't going to agree with my review. Usually, I get comments like, "UGH YOU ARE SO SENSITIVE JUST ENJOY THE BOOK UGH!" or "At least the author tried. You don't write." or "I LOVEEEEED HIS BOOK HOW COULD YOU HATE IT YOU SUCK." Hey look--I've already made your comments for you! You can just copy, paste, troll, and go on your merry way!
But I can't let this pass without saying something. Journals may praise Dreamland Burning because it discusses a historical event that has been hushed up, but I question if this is the right book, the right author, and the right story. Without a doubt, we need to talk about these past atrocities. But we need to talk about them with people who are part of the marginalized groups affected. Identity and diversity cannot be props in a historical fiction novel, and that is how I felt about both Rowan and Will's respective heritages.
*The author addresses the problematic language of "race riot" in this instance--it implies that black citizens of Tulsa were promulgating violence, when they were in fact the victims. Rightly, it was a terrorist attack and a hate crime. However, "Tulsa Race Riot" is used in the book to conform to common historical usage.