Book Club: March 2022 Killers of the Flower Moon

March 2022 – Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

There might be no truer adage than “the victors write the history books”.  This month, Zion’s readers were introduced to a time in this country’s history they never heard about in school.  New Yorker staff writer David Grann took us back to the early 1900’s in his true crime book, Killers of the Flower Moon.  In the 1870s, the Osage Indian tribe had been forcefully removed from their lands in Kansas and sent to a rocky reservation in Oklahoma.  To the shock of everyone, that arid land proved to house an abundance of oil under its dry ground.  To get to that oil, leases and royalties had to be paid to the tribe since a prescient tribal lawyer had inserted in their ownership deeds language that reserved the mineral rights under the ground.  Osage members on the tribe’s roll received quarterly checks from the profits.  As oil production increased so did their wealth until, in the 1920s, they were considered the richest people per capita in the world.  While newspapers carried pictures of Osage being chauffeured in large cars to their very modern homes, somehow this good fortune was only a footnote in history books, if it appeared at all.  We would like to believe it was because of shame . . . for in this book, Mr. Grann lays out the cold-hearted, planned murders of an ethnic group by racists with the goal of deliberate annihilation for monetary gain. He details the investigation by the infant FBI.   And he documents how the pain and sorrow that resulted still fracture the Osage culture today.

Mollie Burkhart, a native Osage, was married to a white cowboy, Ernest Burkhart, and had two children with him.  Her Osage sisters had also married white men.  Ernest worked for his uncle, William Hale, a self-made land baron and cattle farmer.  Touting himself as ‘the best friend the Indian could have’, Hale was a pillar of the community – Bible-quoting churchgoer (to the point of calling himself Reverend), fancy dresser, even reserve sheriff’s deputy.  He acted as ‘guardian’ of different tribal members who the state decided were not capable of managing their own money, which the state frequently did so that white men could then control the wealth.  When Mollie’s sister was murdered, surely Mr. Hale could discover what happened.  As Mollie’s other sister, mother, and tribal friends disappeared or were found dead, Mollie began to fear she too was a target.  Two shyster brothers who were the only medical help for the town were treating her for diabetes, but she only continued to decline.

The tribe formally appealed to the federal government, the same government which forced them on to the reservation and continued to pass more restrictive laws about how they could spend their own money.  Eventually, the case was handed to J. Edgar Hoover who had just been given the directorship of the Bureau of Investigation.  Determined to make a name for himself by solving these mysterious deaths, Hoover called on Texas lawman Tom White to put together a team of agents and infiltrate the local area.  Mr. Grann painstakingly chronicles the victims, the suspects, the clues, and the solution of this real-life drama.

Zion’s readers found the beginning of the story read like a murder mystery.  It was difficult to keep all the characters straight, and some readers kept a list to help them remember names.   Many of the tribal names were hard to wrap our minds around; some showed a touch of humor (Bacon Rind).  As the chapters developed, the evil hovering over the Osage was revealed to be a widespread conspiracy and Tom White, while a cog in Hoover’s wheel, was the only person exhibiting morals and compassion.  His dogged pursuit of justice, while gripping reading for some, read more like a dry history book to others.  In his efforts to be thorough, the author’s writing seemed slow.  As one reader said, the grist for a great story to keep you on the edge of your seat is there, but this book didn’t.  It is a stellar example of how dehumanizing a person can be justification for anything, even murder.  We will be interested to see how the planned movie approaches this tale of heinous murder, criminal conspiracy, racism, and injustice.

The author included pictures of Mollie and her family members as well as the detectives involved.  Some readers found them helpful, others thought they should have been grouped together in the middle of the book.  Some of us looked at those pictures and wondered at the hatred and evil hiding behind the faces.  The book also clearly outlines J. Edgar Hoover’s beginnings.  For those unfamiliar with Hoover’s origins, this is a good introduction to someone who built an empire collecting damaging information on politicians and influential people then threatening them with it.  There is another saying that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Hoover’s career at the FBI is an example of that greed for power.  It also appeared that government put a great value on qualities in men that it severely undervalued in women – many men moved up the ladder after demonstrating organizational and clerical skills while women with that same skill set couldn’t get hired.  It is a challenge to look at unfairness, injustice, and racism in its historical context.  That there is less of it now should point to progress.

As Mr. Grann dug deeper into the Osage murders, he was able to contact descendants of the victims.  Their artifacts, diaries, and family stories revealed that the number of murders was far larger than the official records showed.  In fact, once some of the murders of Mollie’s family were solved, the government was only too anxious to sweep the rest under the rug.  There are many, many cold cases stretching back to the 1920’s and families who still do not sleep easily because they do not have closure or wonder if members are still a target.  As the author tried to uncover new leads, his writing became repetitious and added to some readers’ dissatisfaction with the book.

One of the great things about being in a book club is learning new information and viewpoints.  Sometimes, what we learn is hard to take in and process.  The actions in this book made for an unsettling read but shed a light on a difficult time in our nation’s history.   Voting was also difficult as our readers balanced content and style in their decisions.  Six gave it one thumb up, 5 were neutral, one gave it a knuckle down and three gave it one thumb down.  On April 7, we read A Good Mother by Lara Bazelon.