Little, Brown and Company, 2017
Rowan Chase is the 17-year-old daughter of a white Tulsa oilman and his successful black lawyer wife, a public defender. The Chases have money and status that, as Rowan’s close black friend James points out, to her annoyance, allows her to live in a bubble. Or at least, it does until construction workers taking up the floor of an outbuilding of the Chases’ 1920’s house find a pistol, a wallet, a receipt – and a skeleton murdered with the brick next to him.
Rowan’s first-person narrative reports the sleuthing in which she and James try to identify the murdered man. They soon link the case with the Tulsa riot of 1921 in which whites looted and burned the thriving black section of Jim Crow Tulsa, leaving 8,000 blacks destitute and killing at least 300. While she investigates the historical murder, Rowan also becomes an intern at a medical clinic that serves the poorest blacks in Tulsa, and discovers racial problems her family’s wealth has hitherto enabled her to ignore.
Interspersed with Rowan’s investigation is another first person narrative: that of Will Tillman, who is 17 in 1921. Will’s father runs a Victrola store (for whites only), but his money comes from his native American wife’s share of the oil found in what was called Indian Country. Will’s story begins with his adoration of Addie, whom he knows from their all-white school. One night, he and a friend go to a speakeasy, and when he sees Addie talking familiarly with a black man, he picks a fight with him. A few days later, he finds that the black man he’d accused of “troubling” Addie was her childhood friend, the son of her black maid. He also finds that the man has been beaten to death by the police. Will’s attempt to apologize to Addie leads to her scathing condemnation of his racism, and awakens him to the horrors behind Tulsa’s seeming peace. When his father makes a clandestine sale of a Victrola to Joseph, a black boy his age, he keeps a receipt of Joseph’s payments (which his father refuses to do), and he gradually becomes friends with Ruby, Joseph’s irrepressible 10-year-old sister. Meanwhile, he watches with discomfort as his stern father is increasingly influenced by Victor, a KKK member who owns a store nearby. And when the quiet racial tensions in Tulsa flare into a riot, the two older men insist that he join them.
So who was murdered? Was he white or black? The two alternating narratives offer both clues and red herrings. The result is a fast-paced read that keeps the reader guessing until the very last pages. The plot, beautifully handled though it is, is only one of the book’s strengths.
Latham perfectly catches both the voice of a privileged 21st century girl and the very different voice of an obedient, church-going boy 100 earlier. Also admirable is Latham’s knowledge of Tulsa, then and now, and her portrait of the Jim Crow South that demonstrates the vitality and relative wealth of Greenwood, Tulsa’s black section.
The Dreamland Theater, with its lights and culture, is in Greenwood; the double meaning of the book’s title accentuates the wider injustice that Rowan and Will both discover. To call this book an introduction to the Tulsa Riot, which is still ignored in many American history classes, is to reduce it to an issue book. It’s more than that; it’s a beautifully crafted historical novel that presents believable characters who come of age in a complex and tragic society.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.