Tag: Osage

Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann


“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

Review: Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham


It was probably quieter a hundred years ago, but that doesn’t necessarily mean better. I understand now that history only moves forward in a straight line when we learn from it. Otherwise it loops past the same mistakes over and over again.
– Rowan, “Dreamland Burning”

Awakening on the first day of summer—and her only day off before her boring internship starts—Rowan Chase quickly finds herself plunged into a mystery—whose body is buried in her backyard and how did it get there? As Rowan and her best friend James investigate, real life intervenes and Rowan’s internship plans fall through. Rowan finds herself working at a medical clinic in a rougher part of town, having to face prejudice she’s largely been sheltered from and that (white) Tulsa has largely tried to forget and pretend isn’t there.

Alternating with Rowan’s story is that of Will Tillman, a half-white, half-Osage (First Nation) teenager in racially segregated Tulsa in the days before and during the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots where whites brutally and without provocation destroyed the prosperous African American community of Greenwood, terrorized an entire community, and killed hundreds of innocent African Americans. Will gets to know an African American brother and sister named Joseph and Ruby Goodhope and, on the night of the riots, has to make choices about what he really believes about their worth as people

Told in alternating chapters, “Dreamland Burning” explores how choices can separate “good” people into both the best and worst of humanity

Expectations and Reality

I came to Dreamland Burning with some trepidation. From reading the summary I really wanted this book to be good. I know embarrassingly little (ok—pretty much nothing) about the Tulsa Race Riots besides vaguely that something happened where white Tulsa destroyed the black part of Tulsa in the 1920s.* In the last few years I have learned more about my own privileges and prejudices and have tried to make an effort to read more diversely—both non-fiction and fiction. Dreamland Burning provided another opportunity to grow and learn more while getting to enjoy a young adult fiction book that came highly recommended by Anne Bogel in her Modern Mrs. Darcy (“MMD”) book club.

Latham did not disappoint. Dreamland Burning raises questions of race relations both in 1921 as well as now. Interestingly, in a recent discussion with the MMD book club, she indicated that she originally envisioned the book as being solely set in 1921 with Will but the more she wrote, the more she saw history repeating itself. Just as white Tulsa saw African Americans die in 1921 and do nothing, so do white citizens today see innocent African Americans being killed in the streets and, largely, do nothing.

With that in mind, she added Rowan into her narrative. While Rowan herself is mixed race, her family’s relative wealth has insulated her from quite a bit until she finds herself unexpectedly working at a medical clinic in a poor part of town and comes dramatically face-to-face with a situation that sets off debates recently seen around Mike Brown, Philando Castile, and Sandra Brown. In her story Rowan is beautifully human—she makes mistakes, she avoids the spotlight when the reader might want her to just say something already. Latham treats her gently, makes her relatable, and the story is better for it.

What Latham did best

Latham’s choice to not make Rowan and her BFF’s James’s relationship into a romantic one was smart and welcome. The seriousness of the book wasn’t distracted by tension of will-he-won’t-he-kiss-me-please-oh-please (which, frankly, would have been off-tone in a book this serious and there’s enough tension in this book without it). It also enabled Latham to add another note of diversity. As you would expect from a book exploring the Tulsa Race Riots, the characters are racially diverse, but with the inclusion of James, an almost-adult who identifies as asexual, Latham was able to reflect sexual diversity in a way that felt authentic, eliminated very early any question of whether there would be romantic tension between Rowan and James, and mirrors the sexual diversity of most of us these days (whether we realize it or not). Latham didn’t set off fireworks with the announcement of James’s asexuality, but folded it neatly in an early description of him that also served to explain some of James’s own background and semi-estrangement from his father. This choice was skillfully made and even more skillfully executed.

Latham’s choices in Will’s story had similar nuance. Without spoiling the end of the book, Latham places “good” characters into situations where they have to choose who they’ll be and what they believe. She lulls the reader into thinking that she/he knows who is “good” and who is “bad”…until they aren’t. In telling this story, Latham shows the harm in being just a “little” prejudiced and how “good” people can very swiftly make choices that set them far on the other side of that line. Though set in 1921, these themes still resonate.

I also greatly appreciated Latham’s attention to detail. While the story is told in alternating chapters, there is more that connects Rowan’s and Will’s stories than just the body in Rowan’s backyard. Latham sprinkles her book with little gems that tie Rowan’s half even more tightly to Will’s. If you miss the little connections, you don’t miss the story but where the reader can catch them, they sparkle and highlight Latham’s skill as a storyteller. In addition, while I did not pick up on this, native Tulsans will apparently recognize many of the places she mentions—her effort at a little inside “nod” to her local readers.

But wait? A white author is writing about race?

Because her picture is not in the jacket of the book, I didn’t see a picture of Latham until I was about halfway through. I assumed that anyone who would be writing such an on-point book about race was herself a person of color—I was wrong. I am not myself a person of color so my judgment on this comes from my own limited perspective; however, the book did not seem to suffer from many of the cringe-worthy pitfalls found when other white writers attempt to bring to life the voices and experiences of people of color. With that said, no book is perfect. The main character is herself part white and wealthy, having grown up somewhat sheltered until she takes the job at the medical clinic. Similarly, Will is part white—while he suffers some prejudice for being part Osage (First Nation), it is nothing compared to how the black community suffers. From the interview, I was impressed with how aware she was of this tension and how seriously she took the duty she had to make Rowan and Will accurate as mixed-race White/Black and White/Osage. She indicated she had both African American and First Nation beta readers as well as having an outside consultant read a final draft from her publisher.

I was still left with a lingering question of whether people of color who read this book would see Will’s part of the story as another white savior story. It wasn’t as neatly wrapped up as other White Savior endings and I have not found criticism for Latham in this but I do not know how widely this book has been read since it is only recently published. Joseph and Ruby (the main characters of color in Will’s story) are presented with strength, dignity, and agency even in the midst of the riots and, because of this, the book did not read to me as problematic in that regard.

Who should read this book?

While this book addresses serious and weighty themes, Latham presents the material in a way that feels age appropriate for young adult readers. She strikes a balance in the violence of the Riots—they are not sugarcoated nor is it vague what is happening—however, her descriptions are never gory. For authenticity, she does use the N-word in dialogue. In a recent interview, she indicated that she had her eleven year-old read the draft and, as a parent, felt comfortable with eleven and twelve year-olds reading the book as long as they have parents who read with them and can process the serious themes in this book.

Rating and Recommendations

I gave this one four stars though a bigger YA fan would likely rate higher. The side-story of Will’s mother as an Osage who had to have a guardian to “manage” her wealth inspired me to go ahead and start Killers of the Flower Moon next from my TBR pile. That review should be up next Tuesday. For readers interested in “book flights,” I recently finished Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson and would recommend that book (another YA) with this one. While I am just starting it, Latham herself recommended The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas as well as American Street as other excellent (older) YA books to pair with books on these themes if you want to read more.

*A note about language—while the incidents of the nights in 1921 are called the “Race Riots,” that language is accurate only so far as it describes what white Tulsa did. The African American community of Greenwood did not riot and largely fled or hid in terror from the rampaging and rioting white community bent on destruction. I refer to the events as the Race Riots, only because that’s the most common name, though it does not fully reflect reality. Latham explains this in more detail in her Author’s Note in Dreamland Burning. To put faces on the youths who lived this story, the yearbook of the 1921 Senior Class from Booker T. Washington High School–the school that should have been having their prom the night of the massacre–is available online.

Published February 21, 2017 by Little, Brown (Instagram @littlebrown)
Author: Jennifer Latham (Instagram & Twitter @jenandapen)
Date read: June 16, 2017
Rating: 4 Stars