You Should Read ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Even If You Never See The Movie
I’ve read few books as dangerously engaging as David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. When asked, on the occasion of the release of Martin Scorsese’s film, for a parent’s perspective on the book the film was based on, I hesitated a bit. Yes, it sounded fascinating: a forgotten history of this epidemic of violence committed against citizens of an Osage Indian nation unfathomably wealthy from the oil reserves found beneath the reservation they were forced onto. But I knew that K. Devery Jacobs, star of Reservation Dogs, had critiqued Scorsese’s telling of this story as “painful, grueling, unrelenting and unnecessarily graphic.” Was this what I’d find in Grann’s book?
Well, here I am telling you that I can’t recommend Grann’s book enough–especially in the context of critiques the film has received. Goddamn, is this a great book: immersive, beautifully crafted, and not a little bit terrifying. Whether or not you’ve seen the film, but maybe especially if you have, you should have this book on your nightstand.
I generally can’t hang tough with true crime dramas. I’ve lied, many many times, to my sister-in-law about watching the TV shows she’s produced—sensational, murder-rich stuff like Stalked: Someone’s Watching and True Crime with Aphrodite Jones. I get that people flock to unsolved mystery podcasts like Crime Junkie and Bone Valley–there’s some catharsis possible in sharing someone else’s pain from a distance, in seeing justice done in a streamlined narrative of “moral clarity.” But my middle-aged brain has enough trouble sleeping without seeking out such terrors. I dared the waters of top-shelf literary nonfiction like Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer and Truman Capote’s defining “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood in spite of the homicide, rather than because of it. But, somehow, David Grann’s gripping story of the campaign of murder unleashed against the wealthy Osage Indian nation a century ago snagged and kept me with its impeccably-wrought detective novel chops, while leaving me with haunting resonances and implications I’ve never found elsewhere in the genre.
After being driven off their ancestral lands in Kansas in the 1870s, the citizens of the Osage Nation were forced onto a reservation of seemingly undesirable rocky lands in northeastern Oklahoma. But then a massive reservoir of petroleum was discovered under their lands, and within a few short years the Osage were the wealthiest people, per capita, in the world. Each registered member of the tribe received quarterly royalty and lease payments of thousands of dollars–in 1923, Grann writes, the Osage took in today’s equivalent of $400 million. The white American public was fascinated by this astonishing tale of overnight prosperity, but it was a fascination run through with prejudice against the “plutocratic Osage” and the “red millionaires,” to use the language of the newspapers of the time. The U.S. government sought to control this wealth with a system of white guardianship for individual Osage citizens, but the oil boom also birthed an unprecedented epidemic of theft, disenfranchisement, lies, and violence against the Osage.
The first part of Grann’s book tells the story of Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose family members begin to die in mysterious and then increasingly violent ways. The murder of Mollie’s sister, Anna, is revealed to be part of a growing number of Osage across the reservation whose murders and unexplained illnesses go unsolved. Grann uses a rich trove of historical documents to beautifully recreate the slow creep of the terror Mollie experienced as she tried to keep her remaining family safe and see justice done, all while she herself grew strangely sicker. The book then shifts to the story of Tom White, the frontier Texas lawman who is tasked by J. Edgar Hoover to lead the investigation into the murders. More cowboy than Ivy League “G-man,” White knows that Hoover wants him to get a win for the still-nascent FBI, but soon discovers an ever-widening web of carefully organized covers-up and institutionalized racist violence. (In early versions of Scorsese’s script, Leonardo DiCaprio was going to play a version of White as a sort of hero detective; as the script evolved, Scorsese and DiCaprio decided that the film would instead focus on Mollie Burkhart’s husband, Ernest, who DiCaprio plays in the film.)
Killers of the Flower Moon
In the book’s last act, Grann paints the story of his own visits to Osage country in the process of researching the book to re-center the legacy of the survivors, and the crimes never solved. By the end of their inquiries in the 1920s, the government had identified twenty-four deaths as part of the “reign of terror” among the Osage. Grann wrestles with the fact that the full scope of these interconnected murders is now impossible to ever know. As Grann said in an interview, “I always thought of the horror of history being what you know, but by the end of the book I started to have the sense that the even worse horror of history is the horror that you don’t know. That was certainly true for many of the Osage, who, for generations, have lived with these mysterious suspicious deaths that in many cases have remained unresolved.” In his final pages, he delivers a gut punch that deepens and darkens an already soul-crushing tale of what human beings are capable of doing to their neighbors, friends, and family members.
If your experience is anything like mine, time will have stopped while you read Grann’s book, and you’ll find yourself utterly enveloped in his masterful storytelling But there is no catharsis at the close of Killers of the Flower Moon—there is none of the satisfaction that true crime stories usually provide. The closest comparison I can make, in terms of the impact of a reading experience, is my experience encountering Hitler’s Willing Executioners. In his 1997 history, Daniel Goldhagen shatters the idea that ordinary Germans were largely innocent of the atrocities attributed to the relatively small number of Nazi officials and SS officers. Killers of the Flower Moon left me with a similar unease—a sense of the communal complicity in the horrors perpetrated by the white community on their Osage neighbors and family members. The implication of the shared commitment to the systematic murder of the Osage in the name of oil wealth left me haunted by this terrible coalescing of greed, racism, and raw inhumanity.
Overall, Grann’s book tries to honor what the Osage experienced in the twenties, and their community’s continuing struggles now a century later. “Whatever you’re writing about, you’re so conscious that you’re an outsider,” Grann said about the process of making this book. “I approached the Osage elders. I was transparent about what I was trying to do. And I spent many, many years spending time in the community, over more than half a decade, getting to know them, having them share their stories and trust me with their stories.”
Grann’s book refuses to look away from the violence committed against Mollie Burkhart, her family, and her community. But the book never feels sensational or voyeuristic in the way that Scorsese’s film has for me. Of the film, Mohawk actor K. Devory Jacobs said: “Contrarily, I believe that by showing more murdered Native women on screen, it normalizes the violence committed against us and further dehumanizes our people.” As Christopher Cote, an Osage language consultant who worked on the film, explained of the film’s centering on the white experience, “As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, but I think it would take an Osage to do that.”
Grann’s book is not the Osage-told perspective Cote is hoping for–but the book seems an honest effort by an outsider to respectfully and truthfully tell this story. I like how keenly aware Grann is of the genre he’s working in: he exploits the terms of engagement in true crime and the Arthur Conan Doyle promises of a detective story to capture and hold my attention as a non-Osage reader. But having caught me in his story, he won’t let me feel anything pat or easy or complete. Rather, he leaves me aware of how fully I remain part of a world built upon the racialized violence and institutionalized prejudice that blossomed so brazenly in Osage country 100 years ago. He just also gave me this understanding through a beautifully wrought, utterly readable detective story.