Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

killers-of-the-flower-moonKillers of the Flower Moon brings to light a gruesome era in US history. In the 1920s, the Osage people of Oklahoma were some of the richest people per capita in the world, due to the oil wells found underneath their territory. But as their wealth grew, members of the Osage Nation began to die in a series of outright killings and mysterious deaths–a period of time the Osage refer to as The Reign of Terror.

This book falls into a somewhat unusual category for me. I loved it because of the subject matter. It’s an ugly and important history that should be widely known, and is deeply relevant to our current time, especially because of the light it shines on the long, racist and corrupt history of our still-broken criminal justice system. I want to give this book to everyone because of the history it contains. But as a book–a piece of writing–it was less than breathtaking.

Grann does a fantastic job examining the Osage murders from every angle. He delves into the history of the region, the beginnings of the Osage oil wealth, and the racism that was deeply engrained in American frontier culture. The book is split into three sections. The first section tells the story of Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman who watched as her family members were murdered one by one, while the local and federal government did little. The second section concerns the FBI agent Tom White, who took up the case and helped to expose the vast murder conspiracy. In the third section, Grann recounts his own present-day exploration into the case, including the failings of the original FBI investigation and the ways the murders have continued to haunt the Osage people for generations.

The thread running through the whole book is the systemic and widespread exploitation–often violent–of the Osage people. Grann delves into the the failure of the government to act, and exposes the many ways in which, throughout history, crimes against Native Americans have been treated differently from crimes against whites. He lays bare the true horror of the American frontier in the first half of the twentieth century, slashing through myths of heroism and adventure. It’s gruesome story and a tough read–not only in its particulars, but also in the larger context of the racism, injustice, and violence indigenous peoples have faced at the hands of the US government, and still face today.

Although there are descriptions of heinous crimes, and the book utilizes mystery and suspense, Grann, for the most part, avoids sensationalism. He tells the individual stories of the murder victims and their families with respect, but is also careful not to let the story ever shrink. Equal gravity is placed on both the atrocities of the crimes committed, and the atrocity of refusing to see the humanity of others, the atrocity of silence, the atrocity inherent in the refusal to act.

The book itself–the actual words and the sentences, the way it was built–was not extraordinary. It appeared on so many best-of lists and was lauded as a brilliant work of narrative nonfiction, so perhaps my expectations were too high. I was expecting writing with heft, sharp, glittering words to match the gravity of the story. Though there were a few instances of transcendence, for the most part, the writing took second place. At times it was dry enough that my mind wandered. I found myself loosing track of names and dates, of who did what when, and why. Sometimes I felt Grann focused too much on the how and not enough on the why.

A note on the audio: there are three narrators, one for each section. I thought this was a fantastic choice and added to the overall scope of the book. I absolutely loved two of the narrators: Will Patton and Danny Campbell, who narrate the final two thirds of the book. Ann Marie Lee, who narrates the first section, wasn’t nearly as good. Her narration had a forced quality that I found distracting, and her light tone didn’t quite match the story she was recounting. I’m glad I listened to it–it kept me engaged when the writing got a bit dry–but, though Patton and Campbell were absolutely fantastic, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the audio. It was worth it for me, but keep in mind you’ll have to put up with a mediocre (at least in my opinion) narrater before you get to the really good stuff.

Ultimately, Killers of the Flower Moon is a captivating book that illuminates a particularly ugly episode in American history, one that is all too relevant today.


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