Thursday, March 01, 2018

Nonfiction Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

I was excited when my neighborhood book group chose Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann for February because I'd heard such rave reviews from so many sources. The nonfiction book was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and interviews I'd heard with the author on my favorite book podcasts were enticing. All the hype was right! This gripping true story was fascinating, suspenseful, and also horrifying (as are most true stories of Native Americans and the history of our country). All of my book group members agreed.

The Osage Indian nation had first been removed from their 100 million acres of ancestral land to a small corner of southeastern Kansas by President Thomas Jefferson and then in 1870 squeezed into an arid bit of scrubby land in northeastern Oklahoma. The familiar story has an ironic twist, though - the land the Osage were moved to in Oklahoma contained valuable oil that had not yet been discovered, and thanks to a wily lawyer on their side, each member of the Osage owned "headrights" (transferable only by inheritance) to everything underground, even after the U.S. government further reduced their land into small allotments. This made the Osage the richest people per capita in the world in the 1920's, but it also put a target on their backs.

In 1921, an Osage woman named Anna Brown was murdered and left on the banks of a local creek. That horrifying event started a long string of Osage murders that were - for years - left unsolved and barely investigated by corrupt white local law enforcement. An Osage named Mollie Burkhart was at the center of this tragedy, losing one family member after another, with no answers or justice. Finally, J. Edgar Hoover sent his Bureau of Investigation, which would later become the FBI, to investigate. At that time, these federal investigators had no jurisdiction, carried no weapons, and weren't able to make arrests, but they were outside of local corruption. A former Texas Ranger named Tom White led the investigation, with a ragtag group of undercover agents placed around the area to gather information that would eventually expose the horrifying secrets and conspiracies behind the Osage murders.

Everything about this book - the history and the mystery - was engrossing. Grann made use of thousands of primary sources, including letters, depositions, court documents, and more, to compile this intricate story into a riveting narrative. The twists and turns would be almost unbelievable in fiction, but it's unfortunately all true. I drove my husband crazy reading passages aloud to him while he was trying to read his own book! My book group had a lively discussion last night, ranging from the history of the Osage to the evolution of the FBI to the details of the complex cases uncovered by the author. We were all surprised - though not really, given who writes the history books - that we'd never before heard this shocking story of one of the most vile crimes in American history...and grateful that a talented writer like Grann has now brought it to light. And this important story will be heard by even more people: the movie adaptation is currently in pre-production, being jointly developed by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio.

338 pages (the last 50 pages are lists of sources!), Doubleday

Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the library. My review is my own opinion.

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  1. This sounds so interesting, is it a narrative non-fiction or a factual-style non-fiction?

    1. Kind of a mix of both. It definitely tells a story, with real-life characters, but filled with facts, too. Very engaging and quick to read.