May 4, 2019

Peter Celebrates the Flower Moon

Killer of the Flower Moon mens book club review rating
Dinner and Acknowledgments

April's book selection took us back to 1921 and told us, in unsparing detail, what lay at the end of the Trail of Tears for the Osage Nation.  As our host last Tuesday, Peter had to devise a menu that referenced, without trivializing, the subject matter of The Killers of the Flower Moon.  Our consensus:  his fry bread tacos were the perfect accompaniment to our book.

Now common to Native American tribes throughout the southwest, fry bread was concocted by the Navajo during their forced relocation to New Mexico.  The Navajo used the only ingredients offered by the US government (flour, salt, lard) to sustain them on land too poor to grow their traditional foods. Fry bread tacos later became part of the southwestern indigenous cultures that spanned the border with Mexico.  (Note:  no big beautiful wall then existed.)

Preceding the fry bread tacos was a tasty Three Sisters Stew, another Indian recipe and an overt reference to the three Osage sisters whose murders open Grann's story.  Dessert was a bowl of strawberries and brownies topped with vanilla ice cream.  Delicious, yes.  Subtle, no.  No one missed the symbolism of white over red and brown.  Well done, Peter!

Our Review and Discussion of The Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Thanks to the popularity of The Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann has successfully reminded Americans of a painful, long-forgotten chapter in American history.  During the decade following World War I, two notable events occurred on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma:  the discovery of large deposits of oil made the Osage enormously wealthy, and a series of Osage homicides began and persisted with the connivance of local authorities. Grann's non-fiction account sifts through trial transcripts, newspaper articles, first-person accounts, and other primary sources to re-tell the disturbing story of how prominent whites not only exploited the Osage but--to bypass the "headrights" of the Osage--also killed them.

Grann also describes how the then-named Bureau of Investigation was called in to find the killers after the efforts of the county prosecutor and state attorney general were deemed corrupt by the Osage and others.   The personal involvement of J. Edgar Hoover and the convictions obtained by his agents and federal prosecutors are the climax of Grann's narrative.

Despite our differences, we all found the story of the Osage fascinating.  We were, to a man, appalled by the treatment of the Osage by otherwise upstanding white citizens.  At every opportunity, the white establishment stole the wealth and dignity of a tribe that was, by the 1920's, greatly reduced in population and forced to survive on land whose spectacular oil wealth had already begun to diminish by the time the FBI concluded its investigation.  As Peter noted, Grann's book takes direct aim at the myth of American exceptionalism. And, as Larry and Dean pointed out, the suffering of the Osage was the logical result of the westward expansion foretold in Undaunted Courage.

Our Rating of The Killers of the Flower Moon

While The Killers of the Flower Moon features a compelling story, many of us faulted Grann for trying too hard. After selling us on the shocking killings that rocked the Osage Nation, Grann then tries to convince us that Hoover's legacy and today's FBI were both forged in the crucible of the ensuing investigation. (They weren't.)  If that weren't enough, he devotes the final pages of his narrative to his own investigation in which he purports to discover innumerable additional victims along with suspects never charged in their deaths.  (We weren't persuaded, as the sources he relies on had already made similar claims.)  Partly for these reasons, and partly to revoke Grann's poetic license (Paul and I complained about his occasional, awkward lyricism), we pulled back from a stronger rating and awarded Grann a still-healthy 7.3.

Next Up:  Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

For May, Roy offered us The Overstory by Richard Powers, The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, Rules of Civility of Amor Towles, and Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart.  In the end, Roy's desire to reprise Shteyngart (after our enjoyment reading Super Sad True Love Story) broke a tie with The Overstory.  We will see if Shteyngart's latest novel about Wall Street hubris lives up to his growing reputation as an American satirist.


  1. I happened to stumble upon an actual Pow Wow as I was walking through Santa Clara University this past Saturday. There was chanting, feathered regalia and ...fry bread taco stands! Having just read the book, I felt really guilty walking through the festivities and almost paranoid that they were all staring at me like I was some type of Mr. Hale. Very disturbing book that doesn't make you feel proud to be an American. I recently read "There There" portraying the plight of today's urban Native Americans and, based on my read of these two books, I feel reparations are in order! The book "Killers" was a great read: suspenseful like a novel, which made it all the more appalling that the events were true. I got a little lost at the end when Grann started rifling off a litany of further murderous misdeeds that were never prosecuted; it was hard to tell if there were enough facts to assign those cases as part of the same conspiracy, but based on the trend, it sure feels like they were to me. I can't wait to see the movie starring Leonardo de Caprio.

  2. Sorry we missed you at the meeting, Jack. But it's great you were able to read the book despite what you were going through. You're right about the book: it gripped all of us even though we had our quibbles with the writing and Grann's faux reveal at the end. What made Killers different, I think, is that while other histories make the trail of tears sound like just a nasty relocation, Grann reminds us that that was only the beginning: even harsher treatment (premeditated murder!) was inflicted on the Native community well into the 20th century. Unforgivable!

  3. The comments about "The Killers of the flower Moon" pretty much match my thoughts. As we all know, abuse of Native Americans did not stop in the 1920's. I recommend Peter Matthiessen's "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" for further reading. This centers on the killing of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 70's. It details the trials of Leonard Peltier as well as referencing and discussing many of the wrongs committed against Native Americans.

  4. My overall take on the book was that it was an important story that I had never heard of, I thought it was fascinating, and I found the writing to be a bit of a slog.

    I’m definitely glad I read it and found it interesting and thought provoking, reminding us that attempting to force assimilation into another culture rarely works well and often has unforeseen consequences.

    Per my earlier comments, this was unfortunately only one example of a multitude of sins. Our Bay Area Alcatraz was used to imprison Hopis who resisted their children being forced into “American” schools and to abandon their cultural knowledge.

    An Osage chief in 1928 said “Some day this oil will go and there will be no more fat checks every few months from the Great White Father. There’ll be no fine motorcars and new clothes. Then I know my people will be happier.” Not sure that happened, but Killers certainly shows the dark side of an era many would probably rather forget but would benefit from being reminded.

  5. This book is an example of how, as Winston Churchill is quoted, "History is written by the victors". I don't remember reading in high school about the "Trail of Tears" much less the way the whites controlled and manipulated the Osage once oil was found at the end of that trail.

    Interestingly there is a legal case currently before for the Supreme Court that could technically cede 5,000 square miles of eastern Oklahoma back to the Muscogee Creek Nation under a 1832 treaty. Apparently only Congress can abrogate such a treaty and while they did for some treaties, the one that affects this part of Oklahoma was never formally abrogated by Congress. Further the State of Oklahoma's argument is that even though Congress did not abrogate the treaty, since Congress and the state have shown contempt for tribes over the years, that alone disestablishes the reservation. In November 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit rejected the state's argument, so now it is up to SCOTUS (or Congress via a formal treaty abrogation) to determine if the tribe should prevail or have another treaty broken -- this time by judicial fiat. You can read the story in the Atlantic (and NPR has a piece as well). The link to the Atlantic article is