“I did not prove who killed my grandmother…My failure was not just because of me, though. It was because they ripped out too many pages of our history…There were just too many lies, too many documents destroyed, too little done at the time to document how my grandmother died…A murdered Indian’s survivors don’t have the right to the satisfaction of justice for past crimes, or even of knowing who killed their children, their mothers or fathers, brothers or sisters, their grandparents. They can only guess—like I was forced to.”
— Dennis McAuliffe, Jr from Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed, and Murder on the Osage Reservation quoted in Killers of the Flower Moon
In the 1800s, the United States government intentionally and systematically attempted to decimate First Nations. Members of First Nation tribes were rounded up, forced off their ancestral homelands, and (what was left of them after plague and wars) forced onto reservations on undesirable and often barren lands. The Osage were driven from their original homeland and crowded into a small part of an Oklahoma wasteland that no one would be interested in…until oil was discovered underneath of it. As a result of their retaining their mineral rights, the Osage suddenly became millionaires. Because Osage “headrights” to the minerals couldn’t be sold but only inherited, the nation was plunged into a Reign of Terror as white settlers plotted and assassinated large numbers of Osage to inherit their wealth. The fledgling FBI was sent to investigate and was able to convict a major conspirator and mastermind behind several of the killings; however, as Grann shows, the killings solved by the FBI were only the tip of the iceberg. Most killings were never recognized as killings or investigated, leaving lasting impact on the remaining members of the Osage Nation today.
Expectations and Reality
I dove straight into Killers of the Flower Moon after finishing Dreamland Burning. Will’s mother in Dreamland is an Osage and Latham mentions a few times the need for her to have a white guardian to manage the money she made from oil wealth. I already had Flower Moon on my bookshelf, so I took that as the nudge to dive into this one next. A coworker who talks books with me had recently recommended Lost City of Z, another of Grann’s books, so I came into this one excited for a compelling nonfiction narrative.
Unfortunately, Flower Moon fell a tad flat. I’m not sure the fault is Grann’s— it probably is much harder to write a compelling legal drama with approximately fifty different white male villains and make it as interesting as a trek in the Amazon. Before I go further, I do want to say I think this book is still a “should-read,” despite my lackluster initial reaction. (As an interesting aside, in the MMD book club interview with Jennifer Latham, she tried to pitch a YA book about these events but was turned down. Attention Little Brown publishers: I would read this. Please rethink this decision.)
What Worked and What Didn’t
Grann structures Flower Moon into three parts. The first tells the story of Mollie Burkhart (“The Marked Woman”), the assassination of her family members, and her initially futile attempts to determine who was killing her family. The second follows the still brand-new FBI as agents in the Oklahoma office (“The Evidence Man”) attempted to secure a conviction of the mastermind behind the Burkhart murders. The third is told from Grann’s perspective (“The Reporter”) as he traveled to Oklahoma, met with remaining Osage, and attempted to research the extent of the Reign of Terror against the Osage. The first part of the book successfully grabs the reader’s attention. The tension and terror are palpable as Mollie Burkhart seems to watch those around her—two sisters, mother, brother-in-law—drop like flies as she herself starts to feel sicker and weaker, not knowing if she is actually sick or being poisoned by someone close to her. This part of the book moves at a fair pace and the characters are relatively easy to keep distinguished from each other. Having specific Osage to care about also brought the Reign of Terror down from the large-scale and theoretical and worked to pull the reader into the larger conspiracies.
The second part of the book is where Grann lost me a bit. The action revolves around Tom White, an exemplary agent and former Texas Ranger who was put in charge of the Oklahoma field office and the Osage investigation. This section desperately needed a character key. Without going back and counting, there had to be at least fifty white men with white men sounding names (Tom, Buck, Bill, Will, Vaughn, Joe, Morrison, etc.) who were almost all villains and involved in overlapping conspiracies. Some of these villains were married or related to Osage, making these villains even more insidious; however, since I had trouble keeping all the bad white men straight, I probably didn’t appreciate the full extent of some of this evil. I couldn’t remember if this bad guy was just bad because he wanted money or bad because he wanted money so badly he played the long game and tricked and married an Osage woman. Not being able to easily flip to a character cheat sheet meant I eventually gave up flipping (there’s also no index) to keep all the white men with their white men names straight. The action here also drags somewhat—it takes quite a few words to clearly explain who was involved in each plot and the details in each plot. Turns out the minute details of murder can become kind of tedious.
There are, however, major points made in this section worth gleaning from the minutiae of murder. Among them is just how racist most Americans were at this point in history that they were unwilling to convict or impose maximum punishment on a white man for the killing of an Osage, even when guilt was proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The depths of corruption in the state courts were astounding as were the lengths the villains would go—essentially, anyone could be bought and if you can’t be bought you can be killed and replaced with someone who can be bought. These are certainly not the details that made it into my high school history curriculum or even my American history curriculum in college.
The third and final section picks up the pace and is much easier to read. I flew through the final section in about an hour of reading. Grann puts himself into the story, explaining briefly how he came to hear about the Osage and his research. His conclusions are heartbreaking—while J. Edgar Hoover and the newspapers made much of the success of the FBI cases in the 1920s, their convictions were the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds more Osage were likely killed in ways that looked like accidents (poisoning by tainted homemade alcohol, lost while traveling) or simply disappeared in areas where the white law enforcement was either involved/paid off or simply didn’t care enough about Osage lives to look closer. Because history at that time (and largely still) was written by white men, there were little to no documents created about these deaths so even with more attention now, it is next to impossible to determine just how many Osage were murdered and by whom.
White Savior Problems
The major downfall of this book and my hesitation in recommending it is that, in many ways, there are two levels of the White Savior here. The first is with Agent Tom White—the narrative is clear that but for the white men in the FBI, the Osage would have no justice at all. In some ways, this White Savior narrative bothers me less. While I’m sure the contributions of the Osage are not explored as fully as they could have been (if this information and these documents even still exist), the backdrop of anti-First Nation racism and the details of the Osage’s unsuccessful attempts to solve the murders themselves makes it clear that only a white man was going to solve the Burkhart murders. The system was designed and the deck stacked such that only a white man was going to be able to navigate the white system here.
Grann as the White Savior bothers me more, though he too is the product of a system stacked to be navigated by white men. Grann meticulously documents his sources, including several books written by the Osage themselves. A reader could read these books and get the Osage story of what happened; however, these books haven’t received the attention or acclaim that Grann has. Flower Moon is more accessible than the books written by the Osage and so the system continues—white storytellers tell the stories of people with color—white people learn about these horrific events—but the white man again gets the credit for the story of the people of color. To me, the lesser of two evils here seems to be that at least this story will reach a wider audience, though this of course does nothing to change the system or otherwise ensure the voices of people of color will ever be heard telling these stories themselves. I concede, of course, that this is a much larger problem than this brief summary can do justice and that many may feel differently—that rather than letting white men like Grann tell these stories at all, the system of publishing should be changed such that minority voices are honored and provided resources and space to tell their stories—after all, they are theirs.
Much like Part III and the debate about who gets to tell what stories, the book ends with no real resolution. While this would normally drive me a little crazy (I don’t need a happy ending but I need an ending), this choice fits the story here. What resolution can the reader have when the Osage have none?
Published April 18, 2017 by Doubleday (Instagram @doubledaybooks)
Author: David Grann (Twitter @davidgrann)
Date read: June 21, 2017
Rating: 3 1/2 Stars