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A compelling dual-narrated tale from Jennifer Latham that questions how far we’ve come with race relations.
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 present and the past.
Nearly one hundred years earlier, a misguided 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.
Through intricately interwoven alternating perspectives, Jennifer Latham’s lightning-paced page-turner brings the Tulsa race riot of 1921 to blazing life and raises important questions about the complex state of US race relations–both yesterday and today.
By Repeated Blows the Oak is Felled.
(Multis Ictibus Dejicitur Quercus.)
Class of 1921 motto
Booker T. Washington High School
Nobody walks in Tulsa. At least not to get anywhere. Oil built our houses, paved our streets, and turned us from a cow town stop on the Frisco Railroad into the heart of Route 66. My ninth-grade Oklahoma History teacher joked that around these parts, walking is sacrilege. Real Tulsans drive.
But today my car is totaled and I have an eleven-thirty appointment with the district attorney at the county courthouse. So I walked.
Mom and Dad wanted to come home and pick me up after their morning meetings. I convinced them the walk would help me clear my head, and it did. Especially when I got to the place where he died.
Honestly, I'd been a little worried that being there again would mess me up. So to keep myself calm, I imagined how things must have looked the night Will and Joseph and Ruby tried to survive. There's this old map of Tulsa online, and the streets I walked along to get here are on it. In 1921, the Arkansas River cut them off to the south, just like it does today. But back then they ran north into trees and fields and farms. There aren't any farms now, only highways and concrete.
It was probably quieter a hundred years ago, but that doesn't necessarily mean better. I understand now that history only moves forward in a straight line when we learn from it. Otherwise it loops past the same mistakes over and over again.
That's why I'm here, wearing one of Mom's knee-length business skirts, sitting on a bench near the courthouse, waiting to tell the DA what happened. I want to stop just one of those loops. Because it's like Geneva says: The dead always have stories to tell. They just need the living to listen.
Everything started the first Monday of summer vacation. It was my only chance at a real day off, because the next morning I was supposed to start the internship Mom had arranged. It was the kind of thing that would look good on college applications and get me recommendation letters from people with MD after their names. I didn't especially want to be locked up in a sterilized research lab all summer, but I never bothered to look for something better. The way things stood, I had one day all my own to sleep late, eat Nutella with a spoon, and send James a thousand texts about nothing.
Only I didn't get to do any of that.
At 7 AM on the dot, a construction crew pulled into the driveway and started slamming truck doors and banging tools around. Hundred-year-old windows do a crap job of keeping things out, so even though the men spoke quietly, I could hear their murmurs and smell the smoke from their cigarettes.
After a while, the side gate squeaked open and the guys carried their tools to the servants' quarters behind our house. Just so you don't get the wrong idea, that sounds a lot more impressive than it is. I mean, yes, we have money, but no one in my family has had live-in servants since my great-great-grandparents. After they died, my great-uncle Chotch moved into the back house. Years earlier, when Chotch was two, he'd wandered out of the kitchen and fallen into the pool. By the time the gardener found him and got him breathing again, he was blue and brain-damaged. He'd lived, though, and was good at cutting hair. Dad says he gave free trims to all the workers at the oil company my great-great-grandfather founded, right up until the day he died. That was in 1959.
The only things living in the back house since then have been holiday decorations, old furniture, Uncle Chotch's Victrola, and termites. Then, last Christmas, Mom decided that even though there are three unused bedrooms in the main house, we needed a guest cottage, too.
Dad fought her on it, I think because he's a nice liberal white guy weirded out by the idea that the back house was built for black servants. If it had been up to him, he would have let it rot.
Mom was not okay with that.
Her great-grandfather had been the son of a maid, raised in the back house of a mansion two blocks over. He'd gone on to graduate first in his class from Morehouse College and become one of Tulsa's best-known black attorneys. Mom went to law school to carry on the family legal tradition and ended up owning a back house. For her, it mattered.
"I won't stand by and let a perfectly good building crumble to dust," she'd argued. There had been some closed-door negotiations between her and Dad after that, then a few days where they didn't talk to each other at all. In the end, Dad started referring to the back house as his "man cave," and while he shopped for gaming systems and a pool table, Mom interviewed contractors.
That was six months ago. The renovations started in May.
I lay there listening to the workmen's saw, figuring I had maybe three minutes before our grumpy neighbor, Mr. Metzidakis, started banging on the front door to complain about the noise.
Only he didn't have to.
The saw stopped on its own. The gate creaked open. Equipment clunked against the truck bed. And the men talked so fast and low that I could only catch four words.
Huesos viejos. Policía. Asesinato.
Which, yes, I understood—thank you, Señora Markowitz and tres años de español. And which, yes, was enough to get me out of bed and over to the window in time to see their truck back out onto the street and drive away.
Something strange was going on, and I wanted to know what. So I snagged a pair of flip-flops and headed for the back house.
It was a disaster inside. A week before, the workmen had demolished the ceiling and pulled all the toxic asbestos insulation. After that, they'd hacked out big chunks of termite-tunneled plaster from the walls and ripped the old Formica countertops off the cabinets. A gritty layer of construction dust coated everything, including Uncle Chotch's old Victrola in the corner. At least they covered it with plastic, I thought, stepping around boxes of tile and grout on my way to the fresh-cut hole in the floor at the back of the room.
Only once I got there, I forgot about the Victrola completely and understood exactly what had sent the workmen running.
Huesos viejos. Policía. Asesinato.
I wasn't good when the trouble started. Wasn't particularly bad, either, but I had potential. See, Tulsa in 1921 was a town where boys like me roamed wild. Prohibition made Choctaw beer and corn whiskey more tempting than ever, and booze wasn't near the worst vice available.
My friend Cletus Hayes grew up in a house two doors down from mine. His father was a bank executive muckety-muck with a brand-new Cadillac automobile and friends on the city council. For that reason alone, Mama and Pop generally let Clete's knack for mischief slide. He and I got along fine eighty percent of the time, and kept each other's company accordingly.
One thing we always did agree on was that misbehaving was best done in pairs. Plenty of the roustabout gangs running Tulsa's streets would have taken us in, but I always figured the two of us were spoiled enough and maybe even smart enough to know the difference between hell-raising and causing real harm. Those gangs were chock-full of unemployed young men back from the Great War who'd come to Oklahoma looking for oilfield work down at the Glenn Pool strike. They'd seen bad things, done a few themselves, and liked showing off for locals. Problem was, the locals would try to one-up 'em, the roustabouts would take things a step further, and in the end, someone always spent the night in jail. That's why Clete and me kept to ourselves. We weren't angels, but we weren't hardened or hollow, either. Of course, even fair-to-middling boys like us veered off the righteous path from time to time. Some worse than others.
I was only seventeen, but had the shoulders and five-o'clock shadow of a full-grown man. More than one girl at Tulsa Central High School had her eye on me, and that's the truth. None of them stood a chance, though; Adeline Dobbs had stolen my heart way back in second grade, and the fact that she was a year older and the prettiest girl in school didn't dampen my hopes of winning her in the least.
She was a beauty, Addie was; slim and graceful as prairie grass, with black hair and eyes like a summer sky. I dreamed about that girl, about her clean smell and the peek of her lashes underneath her hat brim. And I loved her for her kindness, too. Boys followed her about like pups, but she always managed to deflect their affections without wounding their pride.
For years I loved her from afar, and spent no small amount of energy convincing myself it was only a matter of time before she started loving me back. Maybe that's why what happened at the Two-Knock Inn that cool March night tore me up so bad.
I was on my third glass of Choc and feeling fine when Addie arrived. Clete was there, too, dancing with a pretty, brown-skinned girl. For when it came to the fairer sex, a sweet smile and a pair of shapely legs were all it took to turn him colorblind. Not that it mattered at the Two-Knock. Jim Crow laws may have kept Negroes and whites separated in proper Tulsa establishments, but in juke joints and speakeasies out on the edge of town, folks didn't care about your skin color near so much as they did the contents of your wallet.
The Two-Knock was a rough place, though. A place where girls like Addie didn't belong. Even so, the sight of her coming through that door took my breath away. She was a vision: crimson dress, lips painted to match, eyes all wild and bright. Clete saw her, too, and made his way to my side after the song ended and poked me in the ribs, saying, "Lookee who just walked in!"
I didn't have breath enough to respond, so Clete jabbed me again. Said, "What're you waiting for, Will? Go talk to her!"
I wanted to. Lord, how I wanted to. But Addie was too good for the Two-Knock, and I couldn't quite reconcile myself with her being there.
When I didn't move, Clete rolled his eyes and socked me on the shoulder. Said, "This is it, dummy! If you don't go over and buy her a drink, you're the biggest jackass I know."
To which I replied that Addie didn't drink. And Clete snorted, "We're in a speakeasy, knucklehead. She didn't come for tea."
I shrugged. Signaled the bartender for another glass of Choc and slugged most of it down soon as it arrived. Then I looked back at Addie and asked Clete if he really thought I should go over.
"Hell yes!" he said.
So I puffed up my chest like the big dumb pigeon I was and got to my feet. Which was when the front door opened, and everything changed.
The man who walked in was tall and handsome, muscled all over, and browner than boot leather. Something about him shone. Drew your eyes like he was the one thing in the world worth looking at. He only had eyes for Addie, though, and she gave him a smile like sunrise when he sat down beside her.
I dropped back onto the barstool.
"You better chase him off," Clete said. But my throat was tight, and I only just managed to mumble, "Nothin' I can do."
"You kiddin' me?" he said. "That boy's out of line!"
I stayed quiet and stared at Addie's pale hand perched atop the table. She and the man were talking. Smiling. Laughing. With every word, his fingers moved closer to hers.
Hate balled up inside me like a brass-knuckled fist. And when he slowly, slowly ran his fingertip across her skin, every foul emotion in the world churned deep down in the depths of my belly. Glancing sideways at a white woman was near enough to get Negroes lynched in Tulsa. Shot, even, in the middle of Main Street at noon, and with no more consequence than a wink and a nudge and a slap on the back. And God help me, that's exactly what I wanted for the man touching my Addie.
I wanted him dead.
The hole in the floor was too small to expose the entire skeleton, but a human skull and shoulders stuck out from inside a roll of stiff fabric. The body had been dumped facedown, and the skull was turned sideways enough that I could see an eye socket and most of the nose hole. A hank of matted brownish hair clung to the bone. There were crusty patches of white gunk all over the cloth and the dirt around it.
The only dead person I'd seen before was my grandfather on Mom's side. I was nine when he died, and had been allowed to decide for myself if I wanted to look in his open casket.
I did. And I remember the pretty silver and black beard hairs curling on his cheeks, each perfect and distinct, as if someone had planted them there one by one. But the hairs underneath his chin were coated with pancake makeup three shades darker than the light brown of his folded hands. That bothered me. Other than a few hurried Christmas visits and an awkward trip to Braum's for a banana split, I hadn't spent much time with my grandfather. Still, I knew he would have hated for people to see him painted up like that, lying on white satin in a fancy funeral home where the makeup person either didn't know how to match a black man's skin or didn't care enough to try.
The skeleton bothered me even more, because someone had dumped it like garbage without even bothering to turn it faceup. That felt disrespectful. Wrong. And the longer I stared into the hole, the worse I felt. I mean, the bones down there weren't props like the ones in crime shows; they'd been alive once—part of a living, breathing human being who'd loved and been loved back. I wasn't grossed out or scared, and I definitely wasn't about to pass out like some stupid girl in a Victorian novel. But I couldn't breathe right. It felt like the full weight of everything the dead person in front of me used to be had settled on top of my chest. It was too real, too much to handle on my own. I needed help.
I needed James.
Sucking in a few lungfuls of fresh air outside helped clear my head. Squirrels chittered overhead in the big sycamore tree. Mist rose off the pool. And the whistle of a train crossing the tracks north of our neighborhood made things feel more normal.
I dropped into one of the pool chairs to start calling James. I say "start" because it was James's first official day of vacation, too. He'd been busing tables after school at an Italian place on Cherry Street for the last year, and the manager had finally bumped him up to their waitstaff for the summer. Lunch only, but that meant he'd be able to sleep past nine and score decent tips. If I was lucky, he'd have his phone on vibrate next to the bed. Whether or not he'd actually answer it was another matter altogether.
Seven tries later, he picked up.
"Jesus, Chase," he grumbled. "Why are you calling me?"
"Come over," I said. "Please."
James snuffled like he was rubbing the flat of his hand up and down over his face. "Why? And did you just say please?"
"You'll see when you get here," I said.
A rustle came over the speaker. James must have been using his shoulder to press the phone against his ear while he sat up.
"Rowan, tell me what's going on so I know how bad to freak out," he said. James never calls me by my first name.
I glanced at the back house and over to the fence separating our yard from Mr. Metzidakis's.
"I found something. Something…"
There was no way to describe what I'd seen that wouldn't make James think I was full of shit.
"Just something, okay? Will you come?"
"Fifteen minutes," he said, and hung up. Which was fine and not fine all at once, because even though I knew he'd get there as fast as he could, and even though the sound of his voice only made me feel like I wasn't alone, I kind of wished he would have stayed on the phone so I could pretend.
The thing about James is, he knows stuff about me that no one else does. It's been that way since last December, when he came over to keep me company during Chase Oil's annual employee Christmas party. I'd snagged a bottle of peppermint schnapps from the bartender's supplies, and the two of us had played drunk Monopoly in the basement.
The rules were simple: Buy a railroad, take a shot. Ditto for properties. Land in jail, take two. We weren't really drinkers, so it didn't take long for both of us to get completely wasted. Neither one of us remembers who won.
What I do remember is waking up the next morning with a tidal wave headache and a fuzzy recollection of lying next to James on the floor, staring up at the ceiling while he told me how he'd gotten sent to the principal in seventh grade for kissing a girl on the playground. "I've never wanted to kiss anyone, girls or boys," he'd said. "I just didn't want Dad to think I was broken."
And I remembered telling him about the birthday party I'd gone to in first grade. The one at the nicest country club in Tulsa, where all the mothers drank margaritas by the pool while we swam. I told him how beautiful Mom's dark skin had looked against the pale pink of her bathing suit, and how ashamed I'd felt for wishing she looked just a little bit more like all the other grown-ups there.
We never talked about those confessions afterwards because we never needed to. James and I realized we were soul mates that night, and soul mates are okay with all the bad shit hidden in each other's dark corners.
I think that's why I called him instead of Mom or Dad that morning. To them, I was still a little girl who needed protecting. To James, I was just me.
After ten minutes, I started listening for his car. Then a siren started up in the distance and my heart jumped into my mouth. The construction guys must have called the police, I thought. Because that's what you're supposed to do when you find a dead body.
I considered running back to my room and pretending like I'd never gotten up. Even if the cops pulled my phone records, there was no way they could prove I hadn't called James from bed.
Which was probably an overreaction. For one thing, the skeleton looked like it had been in our back house for a long, long time. Maybe since the place was built. And even though the whole setup had a distinct crime scene vibe, there was no way I could have been involved in something that happened before I even existed.
Then again, it wasn't like there was a shortage of news stories about bad cops assuming the worst when it came to brown-skinned kids like me. So on second thought, maybe it wasn't such an overreaction after all.
Either way, the siren was moving away. My heart settled back where it belonged. My shoulder blades pressed into the seat cushion. But my hands didn't unclench until the noise faded completely, and the urge to run didn't leave until Ethel had growled her way down the street out front and gone silent in our driveway.
A bead of sweat rolled down my nose and dripped onto my forearm. I watched it shine in the glow from the Two-Knock's old-fashioned gaslights as Clete eyed the Negro sitting next to my Addie.
"Will," he said in a false whisper. "If you don't do nothin', then you're a yellow coward."
I drained the last of the Choc from my glass and asked him if he had my back. "Always," he said, with something flat and mean in his eyes that I mistook for loyalty. So here's what I did: I walked over to Addie's table and I said to that full-grown man, "You best get away from her, boy."
The man pushed back his chair and stood up, and even though our eyes met on the level, I knew straightaway I'd never best him in a fight. Addie watched, her own beautiful eyes big with worry. Then a funny look crossed her face and she said, "Aren't you Will, from school?"
"William," I said, affecting a deep voice that wasn't truly mine. "William Tillman."
"Well, William Tillman," her companion said. "I'm Clarence Banks. Would you care to join Miss Dobbs and me for a drink, or have you had enough already?"
I stood there swaying, trying to figure out if he was mocking me. In hindsight, it shouldn't have taken much figuring at all.
"I told you to get away from her, boy!" I near shouted. And Addie said in her kind, sweet voice, "William, Clarence and I are old childhood acquaintances, just here to catch up with one another. If you'll go back to your friend now, you and I can have lunch together at school next week. How does that sound?"
That's when the molasses in my brain cleared enough for me to realize Addie was trying to get rid of me. And I set to blubbering like a fool, saying, "He touched you! Don't let him do that, Addie. Don't let him touch you!"
At which point Clarence moved between me and the girl I loved and said, "Now, William, I know Miss Dobbs appreciates you looking out for her, but she's fine. Everything's fine. You go on back to the bar and have another drink, my treat. Miss Dobbs and I will take our leave, and we'll all finish out our respective evenings, nice and peaceful."
I checked to make sure Clete was behind me like he'd promised, but he was way back at the bar, watching the spectacle unfold like he didn't know me from Adam. There was disappointment in his stare. Pity, too, as if I'd failed him and every other white boy in the world. It stung so bad that something inside me broke like rotted boards under a fat man's foot. And when I swung at Clarence Banks, it was with all the broke-hearted fury inside me.
He saw it coming, of course, for I was a poor fighter sober and a downright hopeless one drunk. Clarence caught my fist and pushed me away. I stumbled backwards, landing hard on the rough pine floorboards. Pickled as my brain was, I felt no pain when my hands caught my fall. But when I lifted the left one afterwards, it flopped sideways like a dead thing.
Addie paled. Clarence looked sick, as if all his shine and confidence had snapped right along with my bones. "I… I didn't mean to…," he stammered. Then Clete was beside me, saying, "You're gonna get it now, boy! Just you wait. You're gonna get it!" He motioned towards the people around us. "You all saw it! You saw him attack my friend!"
That's when the owner came out from behind the nickel bar, saying, "Now, son, let's just settle down and sort things out."
Clete shook his head, saying nuh-uh and looking around for support. Only nothing came back to him but stares. That's when his face went mean and ugly, and he said he'd show us all and ran out of the Two-Knock into the night.
The bartender turned to Clarence. "That was a fool thing you did, son. Best be on your way quick before that boy comes back with the law. I'll see that missy here gets home."
He was a big man, that bartender, and could have passed for black or white. Either way, he knew Clarence Banks was in trouble.
Clarence pulled himself tall and said something I didn't hear. Addie shook her head and put her hand on his arm and told him, "Clarence, please… you have to go." Something passed between them. Something I felt more than saw. Then it was over, and Clarence Banks walked out into the night.
After that, the bartender hoisted me up by the armpits and dragged me to a stool. "Let's see what we got here," he said, straightening my wrist. That's when the first of the physical pain hit, all hot and sharp, like someone pounding a railroad spike into me. I yelped. The bartender scratched his head.
"You got folks to tend to this?"
"Well then," he said. "Since it ain't your leg, you can walk home just fine. And listen close: you and your friend keep clear of my establishment from now on, understand?"
I must've nodded again, for he grunted, then told me to beat it. I wobbled across the room, trying to keep my feet. And as I pushed open the door, his voice found me once more, like a kick in the pants.
"And don't you tell no one where you been!"
The cold, dark air hit my hot cheeks like a tonic, busting through my muddleheadedness enough so I could steer myself homeward. I cradled my hand against my chest and took a few steps.
"Will! Will, wait!" Clete hollered from somewhere behind me. I turned, trying to find him in the scant moonlight. But when I finally managed to make sense out of the shadows, there were two figures coming at me instead of one. I closed my eyes, shook my head, and looked again to make sure the Choc wasn't making me see double.
Sure enough, there were two: Clete, and a policeman who grabbed my elbow when he got to me, saying, "Hold up there, fella. Your friend here tells me you've been attacked by a Negro."
He spied my wrist and grabbed it, and the sound of my yelp tumbled down the street.
"Can't see a thing out here," he grumbled. Then we were back inside the Two-Knock. Me, Clete, and the policeman.
The place was still as a tomb. Even though Prohibition was in full swing and drinking was every bit as illegal as thieving, most coppers would turn a blind eye to it so long as speakeasy owners kept free booze and cash bribes flowing their way. Still, every man and woman in the Two-Knock that night could've been arrested on the spot.
The cop looked at my wrist, tutted, and said, "I hear a colored boy assaulted this young man. That so?"
Not a soul in the room moved save for Clete, who was practically hopping up and down, saying, "Course it's true! It's like I told you—he went after Will here just 'cause Will told him he shouldn't be pawing all over a white girl!"
The cop's lips pulled back from his teeth like the notion of such a thing made him sick. "Which white girl might that be?" he asked, looking around.
"She… she left," mumbled a moon-faced boy no older than myself. And the cop stared him down so hard I thought that boy would crack. Then the cop said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm runnin' out of patience here. Where. Did. She. Go?"
Clete cleared his throat, and for half an awful second, I thought he might just be riled enough to give Addie up. Instead, he said, "I don't know about the girl, sir, but that Negro said his name was Clarence Banks. Will, here, was just trying to get him off of her, and that boy started cursing and going after him like a mad dog. Ain't that so, Will?"
My wrist hurt so bad I couldn't think straight. My head ached. I needed to throw up. And, God forgive me, I croaked out yes.
Praise for Dreamland Burning:A Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Books of the Year PickA YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers
* "Latham presents a fast-paced historical novel brimming with unsparing detail and unshakeable truths about a shameful chapter in American history... An unflinching, superbly written story about family, friendship, and integrity, set during one of America's deadliest race riots."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
* "Latham masterfully weaves together the story of two well-off, mixed-race teenagers--Rowan, in the present, and Will, who lived in Tulsa in 1921--in this fast-paced, tension-filled look at race, privilege, and violence in America... This timely story gives readers an unflinching look at the problem of racism, both past and present, while simultaneously offering the hope of overcoming that hatred."
—Booklist (starred review)
* "Enthralling, expertly paced."—School Library Journal (starred review)
"Latham thoughtfully asks readers to consider the responsibilities of a witness; what it is like to be biracial when belonging to one group is paramount; and about whether saving one person can make a difference in the broader context of society's racial problems."—The Horn Book
"Latham's research for this novel is evident. The historical period is richly detailed, offering a window into the racial inequalities and hatred that divided this community."—VOYA
"Wrapped in a detective tale, this is a thoughtful look at racial issues, an exciting whodunit, and a fascinating glimpse into Tulsa history."—School Library Connection
- On Sale
- Feb 20, 2018
- Hachette Audio