There are times when I open a book and it takes me to another place. There are times when it takes me to another time. Sometimes it’s an escape for a couple of hours. With David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, it was an uncomfortable trip to another time and just a bit north of where I live. But, as uncomfortable as it was to read, it was a tale I’m glad I know about now.
I’d seen this book on many lists and mentioned in more than a few articles, but my friend put it in my hand and told me I needed to read it. She was right. The book is an in-depth look at a period of history to which I’d never been exposed.
During the 1920’s, a series of murders and mysterious deaths plagued the Osage tribe. The tribe, who had been moved from location to location at the whims of the US government and finally planted in the northern point of the state of Oklahoma, were receiving large amounts of money for the huge oil reserve found on tribal lands. Grann structures the book into three parts. The first tells the story of Mollie Burkhart, a member of the Osage tribe, who sees her family die person-by-person, until she is the only one left and fears for her life. The second part picks up the story of Tom White, Bureau of Investigation agent, and the man Hoover chose to build the reputation of his life’s work. He, along with his team of agents, are tasked with finding out who is killing off the tribe and bring them to justice. The third, and final, part tells Grann’s story of research and learning first hand of the long-term impact of this dark period in history.
I read this book with a growing sense of disgust and horror. While the story is historical and we should be careful applying our own knowledge and current beliefs on another time period, I learned with this book there is a point this isn’t true anymore. We’ve all heard the platitude concerning history and not repeating it. Well, I learned a few things with this book. Here are my thoughts.
In our current political and cultural environment, political corruption seems rampant and everywhere. Or at least it feels like it. Yet, Grann’s research and account revealed layer upon layer of corruption where the Osage tribe were concerned. And, quite frankly, the state government of Oklahoma. Officials, from sheriffs to governors, were brought down for bribery, corruption and any other number of charges and convictions. At moments, this was pretty depressing. However, as I read the section about Tom White and his team of agents, I had my spirit buoyed. They were people from various backgrounds, places and skill sets, yet they teamed together and fought hard to bring some justice to Mollie Burkhart and her family. Did they always get it right? Nope. Did they bring all the corruption to an end? Nope. But, normal people can chip away at the darkness if they keep at it.
The bureau’s probe had long been plagued by leaks and sabotage. One agent complained that “information contained in reports immediately gets into the possession of unauthorized and unscrupulous persons.” –David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Truth, it seems, has always been a slippery thing. As I read the story of the Osage, the ability of people to use disinformation and “fake” stories to misdirect and distract people from what is really happening emerged as a major element of this story. Lawmen and private investigators had been looking into the deaths of the Osage for years when White and his agents showed up. They’d chased ghosts and whispers with no real conclusions or answers. Tom White worked hard to bring as much to light as possible, but Grann’s third part of the book showed that truth will out. Sometimes it’s within months, sometimes years and sometimes decades. Yet, it takes people searching for the truth to make it surface. Without pushing and prodding, withough that curious person who just can’t leave well enough alone, we might never know.
What I appreciated most, though, was Grann’s work to humanize and give dimension to people who have long since died. Mollie Burkhart and her family have been gone for a long time. Yet, I ended this book with a sense of the grief, sadness and fear she must have gone through as she fought to find out who killed her sisters and mother. He helped me to feel the helplessness the Osage must have felt under the “guardian” program where white men were given control of their funds because they were considered incompetent. And, I was able to understand how the echoes of an unsolved death can impact families decades later.
An Osage, speaking to a reporter about the guardians, stated, “Your money draws ‘em and you’re absolutely helpless. They have all the law and all the machinery on their side. Tell everybody, when you write your story, that they’re scalping our souls out here.—David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
In the end, I closed the cover of this book and took a deep breath. I turned the story around in my head and examined it from various perspectives. I hope, someday, to have the courage of Mollie Burkhart to face adversity with tenacity. I hope to fight injustice and honor the truth like Tom White. I hope to value every human not because of their ethnicity or because of what I can get from them, but for just being a fellow human. Thank you, David Grann, for bringing this tragic chapter of American history to our attention and just when we all might need a reminder about what we should all be fighting for.