Friday, June 22, 2018

Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

I can be an annoyance in my book club. I've read a lot and have strong opinions about whether books are good for book club or not. Not all enjoyable books are good for discussion so sometimes it seems like I'm being a party pooper when I object to books others have enjoyed. Other times I will wrinkle my nose at a suggestion because I really, really don't want to read it. (Admitting this isn't going to get me invited to any new book clubs I'm sure.) But maybe it helps redeem me a little bit when I say that there are books I am not terribly keen to read but have heard such good and promising things about that when they are suggested for book club, I jump on the bandwagon and push for them, despite the fact that I would normally shy away from them. I figure this is my way of getting out of my comfort zone. If book club picks it, I will have to read it, right? Sometimes I have my initial reluctance to read these books validated and other times I am surprised and pleased by having spent time between the pages. David Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon was one of the latter books. I don't much like books with murders but so many people were raving about it that when it was suggested for book club, I was willing to go along with its selection. And I am happy to say that I was thoroughly engaged by the story and am glad that I didn't pass this one by, even if people do die in it.

Less than 100 years ago members of the Osage tribe were being murdered. Chances are that you never heard about this in history class despite how recent it was and how the case played such a large part in the emergence of the FBI as the nation's top investigative agency. Perhaps it isn't covered because it is a history of greed, racism, and evil, one that we would surely want to distance ourselves from. But it's a history that shouldn't be ignored. In the 1920s, the Osage people were some of the wealthiest people in the US. After being driven out of their ancestral lands and relocated several times, they finally settled on what appeared to be a worthless piece of land in Oklahoma. In negotiating to create the reservation, their chief was smart enough to retain all mineral rights for the tribe members so when a large oil reserve was discovered under the reservation, the Osage struck it rich. But then they started to die, shot, poisoned, bombed. And no one was looking into these murders.

Told in three sections, this is narrative non-fiction at its best, both well-researched and thorough as well as engaging. The first section of the book focuses on Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose family is mysteriously dying before her very eyes. Local law enforcement investigates only very cursorily and allows obvious murders to remain unsolved. The so named Reign of Terror becomes so overwhelming that the Osage themselves finance an investigation into the untimely deaths. And then the people investigating start to die as well. The second portion of the book deals with the elaborate investigation, including that by the emerging FBI in its early days under J. Edgar Hoover. This piece of the book is centered on former Texas Ranger Tom White, whose dogged investigation, including using people and tactics that Hoover didn't always approve of, resulted in a trial despite local obstruction and prejudice. The third part of the book deals with Grann's speculation about the breadth of the case, all the pieces that have gone unpunished or unsolved, and the further evidence that he uncovered in the course of researching the book. The narrative sometimes bogs down a bit in the midst of the second piece, especially since the mastermind is never in doubt but over all, the story is a fascinating one and the path to justice is disturbing and byzantine. True crime aficionados will enjoy this immensely but those who rarely or never read true crime will find this completely engrossing as well.  If you like narrative non-fiction, I highly recommend it.

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