By: Jennifer Latham
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: February 21st, 2017
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 past, the present, and herself.
One hundred years earlier, a single 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.
A word to the wise: this is not a book that’s a light and fluffy read. The first chapter starts with Rowan, the MC, finding a dead body in the backyard of her Jim-Crow Era house. The next two chapters make it very clear that this book is dealing with the Tulsa Race Riots, a truly horrifying event in history. But despite the intensity of the subject matter, the read is very much worth it.
It’s sometimes difficult to balance two narrators, but Latham did an excellent job here. The present-day MC is Rowan, a teenager whose plans for a quiet summer get derailed by the aforementioned dead body. Will Tillman, a teen in Tulsa circa 1921, is in a place where racial tensions are running high. But where I thought the author did an excellent job was in drawing parallels between their lives, and making it so that their stories more or less flowed evenly. Both of them are in this sort of in-between place, slowly becoming aware of the problem of race in their own lives, and fighting between the urge to retreat into their comfortable lives or do the right thing.
A fascinating, and relevant, point is that both Rowan and Will are mixed-race. Although points for representation, the main reason why this is a plot point is that both technically have the option to ignore the racial tensions in their lives. Rowan’s friend James points out that her rich white father has helped to shelter her from a lot of potential ugliness, and although Will’s mother is Native American, he’s clearly considered white by most of the townsfolk. But there’s also a point at which neither of them can run, or choose not to run, from race–both how people see them, and how they react to the society of racism around them.
There’s an underlying tension throughout most of the first part of the book. Both Rowan and Will have moments where they are forced to confront the concept of race and how it is applied to them. But this tension gets brought into full focus when Will witnesses the start of the Race Riots, and Rowan witnesses a hate crime. This is where the book goes full throttle, as both of them have to navigate a complex situation deeply motivated by race and race politics. For Will especially, both his internal struggle to do the right thing and the events around him are highlighted by family–his parents literally dividing on different sides of the Race Riot. But there were also some good moments with Rowan.
Although I liked Will’s narration, I thought of Rowan as the true MC. Her story is more about synthesis, as she learns about the race riots, digs deeper into the mystery of the body, and deals with the racial politics of today. Although the story is definitely fairly pointed (if you can’t tell this from the review), I think it stops short of hitting you over the head with it. And for Rowan especially, her story isn’t entirely tied up in race, but in a notion that you have to stand up for your own beliefs and correct the wrongs you see in the world. Her understanding of Will’s story helps, in a way, inform her choices, but they aren’t particularly tied together.
But so much of this story is about racism, overt or not, and the deadly consequences of it. This book certainly broadened my horizons and my notion of race–although it was also a well-told story that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us. An advanced copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.