Author: David Grann
Published in 2018
This book was a gift at Christmas which made it to the top of my ‘to read’ stack in February. My only familiarity with the story was via an old film, “The FBI Story”. I recall seeing at least it probably when I was in elementary school. I assume I may have been home sick, as those occasions account for some of my having seen old films on TV that I normally wouldn’t have been seeking out. I recall the early stages of the film concerning murders on an Indian reservation involving oil leases, as well as some guy who put a suitcase bomb aboard a plane to kill a relative and collect life insurance. I think Jimmy Stewart was the lead, but it has been a long time.
The book obviously came recommended, so I was interested to learn more of the story. My best analogy to the book’s structure is a scene in a film. Imagine a shot beginning with an extreme close-up, perhaps of one individual. The camera slowly pulls back revealing more and more of the surroundings and continues until it becomes some panoramic long-range view. I cannot cite a specific cinematic example, but this is how the story came across to me. Initially, it seems confined to a single family, and you are introduced to the members. Gradually more people in their town and the surrounding communities become involved. This continues, perhaps at a reduced rate, for the entirety of the book until you are presented with a broader picture both in scope and in time of the events and of their impact.
The book is divided into 3 segments. The first concerns the crimes themselves in the 1920s and 30s and describes those immediately involved. The second expands to show how the investigation came about, which ultimately exposed the main subject cases and how they were resolved. The final section jumps ahead to the present and expands the scope of the crimes and their after affects.
I found the first segment a bit slow initially, but I can see why it was presented in the way it was. The narrative momentum picked up the further you went, though. I certainly learned quite a bit about the Osage, how they came to be in the area, and the effect of oil being discovered there. The conditions that gave rise to the crimes were basically the unintended consequences of perhaps well-intentioned prejudice. Viewed through the perspective of Native Americans’ relationship with the federal government in the early 20th century, I can see why there was a perceived need for ‘protecting’ the Osage when they suddenly began receiving an unimaginable financial windfall from oil leases. The intent was to ensure that they would not be defrauded and left poor again by unscrupulous outsiders. Without oversight, that sort of scenario would undoubtedly have played out in some cases. However, the system that was put in place ended up incentivizing the murder of some people instead. In the end, it likely would have been better for the government to have stayed out of the situation entirely and to have relied on the Osage to manage their own affairs. It almost certainly would have been less damaging in the long run.
I enjoyed reading this book. It provided insights into a part of history that doesn’t get much attention generally. I thought it was informative without ever becoming preachy. Those who were guilty were called out, as much as possible a century after the fact. In looking up some things about the book online, I noticed that it is, as the saying goes, “soon to be a major motion picture” in 2023 and starring the likes of DeNiro, DiCaprio, etc.