Book: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
Publication date: 2017
Source: Purchased hardback
Summary: Journalist David Grann researched the little-known history of members of the Osage Nation who were corralled into a reservation in Indian Territory (now Osage County, Oklahoma) on unpromising land. A few decades later, oil was discovered. By the 1920s, many tribal members were wealthy and that was not a circumstance that set well with their white neighbors. White men used legal means to seize control of that money. When the legal means didn’t satisfy their greed, members of the Osage Nation began dying in suspicious circumstances.
There was still a Wild West mentality in the area, so officers and judges were more likely to be in the pockets of the rich white men than they were to be in the service of justice for all. Eventually, federal officers, serving in a precursor to the FBI, took over the investigation under the direction of a young J. Edgar Hoover.
Thoughts: I led the discussion of Killers of the Flower Moon for our book club, The Community for Understanding for Hope Book Group. We specialize in books about race in America. Because of our history and the make-up of our community, we usually choose books about the Black experience.
Killers of the Flower Moon was unusual for us in featuring a story about the Native American experience. That’s definitely a helpful reminder for us that race issues in the US aren’t confined to one group. Our white supremacy culture branches out to other groups in unfair, even murderous, ways.
The events of this book start with a murder of an Osage woman in May 1921, the same month as the beginning of the Tulsa Race Riot, when enraged white citizenry killed and injured hundreds of African-Americans and burned down 35 blocks of Greenwood, an African-American town so successful that it was known as the Black Wall Street. Tulsa is sixty miles south of Osage County where the events of The Killers of the Flower Moon took place.
Our book group learned about the Tulsa Race Riot from the book Fire in Beulah. One of the most common comments in our book group is “Why didn’t I learn this in history class?” That was true for both the Tulsa Race Riot and the Osage murders. One of our participants talked to a friend from Oklahoma who said she didn’t learn about these events in school, even in a history class focused on Oklahoma. Hopefully, the popularity of these two books will change that.
The Tulsa Race Riot had to have an impact on the psyches of the people in this book. The whites were emboldened and experiencing the cognitive dissonance of white supremacy — attempting to justify the unjustifiable using arguments that don’t bear scrutiny and, therefore, weren’t scrutinized. The people of color were even more cautious with this recent and nearby evidence that white people were crazy and unstoppable in their violence, no matter what they said in the churches on Sunday mornings.
David Grann didn’t draw the connection to the Tulsa Race Riot, but he drew a lot of other ones — the ways that our government infantilized marginalized communities making it easier to legally take advantage of them, the development of policing, and the long-term impact that these events had on families to the present day.
Resources: There’s not a lot of help out there, yet, for leading a book club discussion on Killers of the Flower Moon. The publisher will probably compile helpful questions for the paperback edition. Until then, here’s what I did…
Our book club usually starts by going around the table with “Tell us your name and one word or short phrase to describe what you thought about this book.” So, I started there.
I shared some highlights from this timeline of the Osage Nation.
Then, I asked what connections our group had to Oklahoma, which elicited some very helpful responses from both black and white members of our group. To firmly ground us in Oklahoma, I read this paragraph by Carter Revard (one of my favorite professors at Washington University in St. Louis, born in Oklahoma with Native American ancestry), after explaining the context of the “no there, there” quote from Gertrude Stein and the gist of the poem by Wallace Stevens about Bonnie and Josie.
Then, we moved on to these questions, inspired by our previous discussions and the questions on the LitLovers site:
- What do you remember about the book Fire in Beulah and what we learned about the Tulsa Race Riot, May 31 and June 1 of 1921?
- How do you think the Tulsa Race Riot impacted the people in this book?
- How would you describe Mollie Burkhart? How were she and other Osage people treated at that time?
- What do you know about the history of the FBI? (I shared highlights from this timeline)
- How would you describe Tom White? How did he approach the investigation?
- How would you describe William Hale? How was he able to elude attention from law enforcement for so long?
- What do you think about the structure of the book in three Chronicles?
- What do you think about the way the author inserted himself into the narrative?
- Who else, from the book, do you want to talk about?
Appeal: Our book club really enjoyed discussing Killers of the Flower Moon. I think we were split on how much we liked the book itself. I liked how it started off with a mystery that made me want to keep reading it like a novel — although, that bogged down a bit in the middle of the book. One of our participants pointed out that the male characters were much more imaginatively brought to life than the female characters. We would have liked to understand more about what it was like to be Mollie Burkhart, the sister of the woman killed in May 1921, in the same way that we understood what it was like to be Tom White, the agent in charge of the investigation.
Challenges: This is my second nonfiction book of 2018, so I’ll link it up to tomorrow’s Nonfiction Friday post at Doing Dewey. I’m planning to read twelve nonfiction books this year. My third book will be I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou — we’ll be discussing that at tonight’s book club meeting.
Have you read Killers of the Flower Moon? What did you think?