This book by Jennifer Latham caught my eye when I was wandering through the YA section of my library a few months ago, so I grabbed it. I happened to be intrigued by several YA books that month, so I just barely managed to finish it before it was due back.
It’s really good. Latham is white but her two main characters are both multi-racial. Rowan Chase is a teenaged black girl whose mother is a black woman who works her butt off as a district attorney. Her father is a white man who comes from old oil money and has lived his whole life in the mansion they are currently living in on the wealthy side of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The book begins when Rowan is woken by the construction crew that suddenly take off shortly after they arrived to start working on the guest house in the back yard. When Rowan goes to see what scared them off, she finds a skeleton with its skull bashed in. She calls the police and her best friend and promptly begins contaminating the crime scene by touching almost everything and stealing the victim’s wallet. It’s not that she doesn’t know better, but in her defense, the body is almost a century old, so even if they could find any fingerprints, it’s not like they’d be able to match them to the killer, if the killer is even alive anymore.
The book switches back and forth in time from the present, with Rowan’s investigation into who the skeleton might have been, to 1921 when Will Tillman was finishing up high school and starting to work part time in his dad’s Victrola shop. Will’s father is white, but his mother is 100% Native American. And yet Will apparently identifies as white.
While this book is all about racial tension “then and now,” it appears to focus on the tension between blacks and whites, with only a few derogatory mentions of Will being a “half-breed.” But any time Will runs into a black person, he mentions how they note his “white” skin or his “pale” skin. Except they wouldn’t. Not that they wouldn’t still be wary around him, but they would certainly not see him as white and I highly doubt he would have had all the same privileges as white men.
It may have been a lie, but at one point, someone tells Will his dad has just joined the KKK, which the KKK would not actually have allowed because (being all about white supremacy) they don’t accept people who are married to POC or have mixed-race children. I also highly doubt they would have let Will join the KKK, although there are a couple mentions of people trying to get him to do so. Again, back to the fact that the book treats him as white when he wasn’t.
Other than that, I think the book did a pretty good job of focusing on racial tensions and how they’ve progressed and how they’ve stayed the same. The book covers the Tulsa “race riot” of 1921, although “race riot” is apparently not the best term to describe it. The term “race riot” conjures images of black people looting stores and lighting cars on fire, but in 1921 Tulsa, it was more like a white mob burning the black part of town to the ground. It’s worth noting that, whatever you want to call it, it’s a very real part of American history that the author researched and used this book to bring to light.
Back in 2016, while trying to investigate the riots and the skeleton in her family’s guest house, Rowan witnesses the accidental murder of a harmless, friendly black man she knew. The incident may or may not have been racially motivated, and I thought the issue was well handled as far as showing how confused Rowan was about the whole thing, even as everyone on the internet was rising up to either condemn or defend the murderer.
The other thing I didn’t like was the portrayal of the racists in 1921 Tulsa. One is Will’s best friend and another owns a store across the street from Will’s father’s store and they’re both positively gleeful when they get an excuse to go on a killing spree in the black part of town.
It felt like a very two-dimensional portrayal of racism. Yes, there are the sociopaths who don’t view POC as people, but a lot of racists, including KKK members, are otherwise decent individuals who honestly think they’re doing a service to their country. In Latham’s defense, she did have Will’s father join the KKK because the Klan convinced him that armed black people were dangerous and would destroy his store, but like I said, I don’t think the KKK would have let Will’s father become a member due to the existence of his definitely non-white wife and child.
All told, I thought this was a very well-written book that I very much enjoyed reading and would definitely recommend it, especially to younger kids and those who need educating about Jim Crow, the KKK, and racism.
What did you guys read this week? Anything else that could have used some better-rounded characters?