Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

The underground reservation…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Driven from their ancestral lands, the buffalo they live on destroyed, their children forcibly removed to schools that indoctrinated them in white culture, the numbers of the Osage tribe had collapsed to just three thousand. But when the government insisted on a policy of allotments in their reservation, a forward-thinking chief and a half-Osage lawyer managed to ensure that the Osage retained mineral rights to the land – an “underground reservation”. So when they then leased their land to oil prospectors, the Osage became enormously wealthy. And then they started to die. This is the story of what happened to the Osage – what was proved, what was suspected at the time, and Grann’s own speculations about the truth with the benefit of distance from the events.

This was a mixed bag for me. It’s an astonishing and horrifying story as it relates to the treatment of the Osage, and a fascinating one as it relates to the development of law enforcement and the newly formed FBI. Unfortunately the telling of the story is patchy – some chapters are well written and informative, others are messy, repetitive and badly structured. Grann, presumably in an attempt to make it read entertainingly, jumps from tense to tense, and while it’s clearly exhaustively researched, the end result is an untidy combination of too much information without enough focus. As I feel I say too often, where was the editor? Name after name after name appears, then disappears either for chapters or for ever. I found that I was constantly trying to remember the relevance of some name thrown at me without reminder a hundred pages from the last mention.

From left: Minnie Smith with her sisters Anna and Mollie. Minnie’s and Anna’s deaths kicked off the investigation.
Photograph: Courtesy of Raymond Red Corn

The actual events, though, deserve to be widely known and remembered so I struggled on through. As the wealth of the Osage grew, so did resentment from the dominant white people. It’s hard to condemn people for being individually racist at a time when the nation was institutionally – constitutionally – racist. The government felt that these childlike neolithic savages (in their view) couldn’t be given responsibility for managing their own affairs, so appointed guardians, most of whom exploited their position to line their own pockets. Some men took guardianships over several members of the tribe, giving them considerable power. But for one man, or perhaps for a conspiracy of many, this wasn’t enough – they wanted not just to skim the wealth of the tribe, but to own it outright. To do this, they had to go to extreme lengths, including multiple murders.

At the same time, law enforcement was still in its infancy, with a populace who were highly suspicious of any form of government interference, as they saw it. Local lawmen and private detectives hired by various interested parties seemed to be dying too frequently too, so that eventually the locals appealed to the federal government for help. Enter the Bureau of Investigation, under the new rule of J Edgar Hoover who would introduce a more professional, scientific form of detection as he transformed the Bureau into the FBI. This part of the story is interesting, but I felt it could have been more fully developed. The agent who led the investigation, Tom White, had previously been a Texas Ranger, and Grann tells his story very well, using him to show how law was administered in those still relatively wild pioneering days, now made even wilder by the gangster culture created by Prohibition and the lure of the Osage’s wealth bringing all kinds of disreputable folk to the area.

David Grann

Grann takes us through White’s investigation, which unfortunately covers all the same ground as was in the early chapters. However, it picks up again when the criminals come to trial, and we learn about the rampant corruption in the justice system that made the job of the lawmen even harder. Grann then takes us on to read about what happened after the trial, to White, to the accused and to the tribe. In the final section, Grann gives his own speculation that there may have been even more murders than were identified at the time, using death statistics to make his case. He further suggests that more people may have been involved in the murders than were ever bought to trial. He talks rather movingly of how the murders continue to haunt the descendants of the victims, especially because of the suggestion that in some cases the murders were committed by white spouses of the tribe members, meaning that some people are descended from both murderer and victim.

So a fascinating and important story which, despite my irritation at the messy structure, I’m glad to have read and happy to recommend.

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Amazon US Link

22 thoughts on “Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

    • Thank you! Yes, I’m still shocked that I’d never heard of the story before this book came out – you’d think a story like that would be common knowledge. I just wish the book had been a bit less messy, but it’s done it’s job of bringing this whole episode into the light at least.

  1. It really is an important story that should be told, FictionFan, so I’m glad you liked it enough about it to finish and recommend it. I know what you mean, though, about editing. There’s so much power in this story that a good editor could have brought out. Still, the story itself is potent, and it’s good to hear that you saw the good parts of it, if I can put it that way.

    • Yes, I think the power of the story itself made it possible to overlook the messiness of the book, mostly. I’m still shocked that I hadn’t heard of this episode until the book came out – it’s the kind of thing that should really be common knowledge. Of course, it’s doubtless better known in America, but I get the impression that even over there it’s been quietly dropped into the background of history.

  2. Our book club read this last year and while I can’t say I enjoyed it, I was very glad I read it. As you said, it’s a story that needed to be told. I think what got to me the most was the inclusion of so many photos. It reminded me frequently that this was non-fiction and these were real human beings!

    • Yes, that’s much how I felt – glad to have read it even though I didn’t think it was terribly well presented. Photos are so important in non-fiction, I think – it’s true that a picture speaks a thousand words. I also thought it was really effective when he talked to the descendants of the victims, and murderers, at the end – it reminded me that in real life the story doesn’t stop at the last page…

    • I honestly don’t know, Debbie. I often think that our modern ultra-politeness maybe makes editors unwilling to criticise – but that’s supposed to be their job! Criticism seems to always be seen as negative these days, so constructive criticism seems to have been abandoned…

    • I’m glad I haven’t put you off completely because despite the messiness it’s a powerful story. I still find it hard to believe we don’t all know about it already – you’d think it would be the kind of scandal that would never be forgotten. Hope you enjoy it when you feel in the mood to tackle it!

  3. Wonderful review, FF, and I’m happy you enjoyed it overall. I read it over a year ago, but I wonder what it says about me if the structure didn’t bother me? I think because I was so hooked on the overall story?

    • Ha! I suspect it says you’re a nicer person and a far less grumpy old nitpicker than I am! 😉 Seriously, though, despite the messiness, I did think it was a powerful story that needs to be better known, so I’m glad to have read it…

  4. I have never heard about this. As you say, an important story. Its a pity about the editing detracting from it at points. You know I’m totally on board with your lament at lack of editors/editing – I’m convinced any novel over 250 pages better make those extra words work hard!

    • It’s incredible that the story isn’t better known, isn’t it? I’m glad he’s brought it into the public consciousness, but I do wish the book had been better structured. Yeah, I reckon editors need to attend assertiveness training… or else they should hire book bloggers as editors… 😉

  5. Too bad this book wasn’t a bit cleaner, because you’re right it does deserve a wide audience, and not many people would be as generous as you when things get messy. Still, as I’ve said before this is such a fascinating topic, and i do hope more books come out about it.

    • Yes, it sounds a bit mean to say it, but I am hoping someone writes a better book on the subject. I might have imagined this but I have a feeling somebody said they’re going to make a TV thing out of it, but I’m not sure if it’s a documentary or a dramatization…

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