A Novel Concept

‘Flower Moon’ for the Younger Set: Compelling Story, Lackluster Writing

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By Michael Malone

Killers of the Flower MoonI picked up “Killers of the Flower Moon” for my nephew, who had asked for it for his birthday, which is just after Thanksgiving. I was chatting with my sister over Turkey Day, and she mentioned she had that same nephew in the family Secret Santa, and had gotten “Killers of the Flower Moon” for him as well.

So I ordered him another book, kept my copy of ‘Killers,’ and decided to read it.

Just before I began, I noted some peculiar text across the top of the cover, a phrase that included the words “adapted for young readers.” I hadn’t noticed that when I was buying the book on Amazon.

A couple caveats for you, dear reader. I’m reviewing a non-fiction book in A Novel Concept, and I’m reviewing the young-reader version of that non-fiction book. Hey, I’m writing this the week between Christmas and New Year’s. No one is playing their A game.

The version did not read like a kid’s book. It did not include young reader terms like “bussin” or “lowkey.” The book has lots and lots of pictures – of rural Oklahoma in the 1920s, of the various characters in the book – which the adult book may or may not have. It is 267 pages, whereas the adult version is 416 pages.

Better known than the book is the Martin Scorsese film, which came out in October. Robert DeNiro plays William Hale, Leonardo DiCaprio is Ernest Burkhart and Lily Gladstone is Mollie Burkhart.

The book’s subhead is “The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” and David Grann authored it. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is significant journalism, a work that tackles a disgraceful and heretofore underreported bit of American history.

The Native American community known as the Osage is booted off their expansive, fertile land in Oklahoma to some rough, rocky ground. Farming is futile, but oil is found beneath their land. Lots and lots of oil. That made the Osage fabulously wealthy.

Some white men, wanting a taste of that wealth, married Osage women. Others began killing the Osage and taking over what was known as their headrights.

Important stuff indeed. Alas, I found the book a bit boring, although a very dynamic story. Osage people being murdered, and a white man viewed as a community leader and good guy – DeNiro’s character Hale – ultimately responsible for the murder of many of them.

Grann has done tons of research, but his storytelling skills are, to me, a bit lacking. Writing of Ernest, Grann offers up perhaps the least necessary Shakespeare reference you’ll read all year. He writes, “He hid, as Shakespeare wrote of a conspirator in ‘Julius Caesar,’ his ‘monstrous’ face behind a smile.”

So monstrous were the laws at the time that many Osage people needed a white person to stand in as their guardian when it came to financial matters. They could not access their substantial mound of cash without their guardian signing off on it. Guardians were well-paid for their efforts, and getting a glimpse into the Osage people’s tidy sums led the way to the murders.

Mollie Burkhart is a key character. An Osage woman, she’s one of four sisters who all married white men. Sister Minnie died at 27 of what doctors called “a peculiar wasting illness.” Sister Anna was shot in the head and left in a ravine. Another sister died when her house was bombed and Mollie’s mother died of the same “wasting illness” that took down Minnie.

While many Osage were shot to death, poison is the weapon of choice among the murderous white men.

Grann also details the early days of the FBI, which was hatched in 1908, but flourished in the ‘20s, with J. Edgar Hoover the director. The FBI made the Osage murders in Oklahoma – the official tally was 24, but some estimate the number to be in the hundreds – a key mission, with a badass cowboy named Tom White, who was a Texas Ranger before joining the FBI, doing the legwork.

The story builds up to the trial of Hale and John Ramsey for the murder of an Osage man, Henry Roan, in 1926. So meticulous is Grann’s research that the reader feels as though they are seated in the courtroom.

“Looking on,” Grann writes, “Hale smiled ever so slightly, while Ramsey leaned back on his chair, fanning himself in the heat, a toothpick between his teeth.”

As the trial nears a verdict, the reader has no idea which way it will go. Will the beleaguered Osage see some justice for the so-called Reign of Terror that has torn apart their community, or will their lives once again be viewed as bearing considerably less value than those of white people?

“Killers of the Flower Moon” was published in 2017, and the young reader book came out in 2021. The adult book got a glittering 4.15 out of 5 on GoodReads. Dave Eggers wrote in The New York Times, “Grann takes what was already a fascinating and disciplined recording of a forgotten chapter in American history, and with the help of contemporary Osage tribe members, he illuminates a sickening conspiracy that goes far deeper than those four years of horror. It will sear your soul.”

The Guardian said, “Grann’s accomplished and necessary account of injustice, avarice and racist violence, tells a story both old and new.”

I may be the only one who found the book boring. Still, I tip my cap to Grann for the research he did on a very important topic – digging through reams of paperwork in libraries and sitting down with relatives of murdered Osage.

“During my years researching the Osage murders, my small New York office became a grim archive,” he shares. “The floors and shelves were stacked with thousands of pages of FBI documents, autopsy reports, wills and last testaments, crime scene photographs, trial transcripts, analyses of forged documents, fingerprints, bank records, eyewitness statements, confessions, intercepted jailhouse notes, grand jury testimony, logs from private investigators, and mug shots.”

Journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children. 


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