Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann.
Vintage Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017. Originally published Doubleday, 2016.
Nonfiction, 377 pages including notes and bibliography.
Lexile: 1160L .
AR Level: 8.8 (worth 14.0 points) .
Through an unusual turn of events, in the 1920s the Osage people became astonishingly rich. Unable to stomach an autonomous American Indian tribe, the United States government appointed “guardians” who would watch over their every purchase, and white settlers moved in to the area with ridiculously overpriced goods and services. And then came the murders. Many were focused around one family, and the FBI eventually got involved in their case.
Normally I read books about more Northern tribes because that’s where we live and travel most often, but after passing through Oklahoma, the Osage interested me. If you are looking for a book about the Osage, this one keeps coming up, so when I saw it at Target I decided to give it a try.
This one reminded me of nothing so much as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, an incredibly popular book that I enjoyed, but wasn’t super impressed by. David Grann does an admirable job of writing this. He clearly did a great deal of research, and it’s clear from the final portion of the book that studying these murders, and slowly coming to understand the scope of the problem, took a personal toll on him. But there is so much more to the story!
That’s sort of how I feel about Hidden Figures. The book and then movie and children’s books have come out to wide acclaim, but most people don’t really want to know more. If Margot Lee Shetterly wasn’t deeply invested in bringing as many stories as possible to light, we would probably never hear further details. David Grann, despite all of his hard work in writing this book, has moved on to his next topic. The Osage people who gave him the information about their families are not likely to have access to traditional publishing platforms. I don’t know where this story will go next (although I so want to read an #ownvoices take on these events), but I worry that it will fade away and be forgotten again.
The book is divided into three parts. Chronicle One: The Marked Woman is about the life and times of Mollie Burkhart. For me, Mollie and her family were the most interesting aspect of this book. Readers interested in medical treatment of indigenous people will also find much of interest here, as some of the killings were medical murders and Mollie herself has diabetes.
Chronicle Two: The Evidence Man, by far the largest section, deals with Tom White, an FBI agent answering to J. Edgar Hoover. Chronicle Three: The Reporter turns into a first person narrative explaining how Grann came to write this book, the stories he learned from different people he met, etc.
You may recall I am NOT a fan of author self-insertion in books, particularly in the final part of the book. It’s still an irritating tactic, but at least Grann had the decency to use the device well, creating suspense about what else he might find (Spoiler: Racism. Lots and lots of racism. Did anyone read this and not see that coming?)
One aspect that did help the story go by was the pictures – both photos of people from the 1920s when the murders occurred and modern photos of places important to the story. They were all black and white, all captioned, and varied in size and placement. Since these illustrations were spaced out a bit, but all placed where they made sense within the text, the photos served both as a way of mentally keeping place while reading less interesting passages. They also help the reader to mentally picture the events taking place there.
Not the exploratory narrative I was initially hoping for, this is a true-crime narrative. The lengthy middle portion about the inner workings of the FBI and the making of a group of agents bored me because what I was truly interested in was the human stories of a group of people who within one generation became incredibly wealthy yet still faced persecution. Grann made some interesting discoveries, and I give him kudos for all the hard work he put in on this story. But much of the story also comes from the families who spent decades researching the deaths of their loved ones.
This is definitely an adult book. As you might guess from the summary, there are quite a few murders and some deaths are described in gory detail. There’s also many references to alcoholism, sexual choices, drug use, beatings, rape, suicide, and so on. Racism and sexism abound although not condoned by the author.
If you like true crime books, you may enjoy this. It is likely to flag at some point for most readers. Notice I’ve been careful not to give away the who or why of this curious string of murders. Grann takes you on a bit of a rollercoaster getting there, and that emotional reaction is one of the stronger points of the book. I think it would also be interesting for book groups as there is certainly much to discuss.