Tuesday, August 14, 2018

History vs Story: What Did the In-Store Lit Group Think of Killers of the Flower Moon?

Killers of the Flower Moon is one of those books you don't need to hear more about. David Grann tells the little-known history of the Osage Tribe and what happened to them after they resettled in a little-wanted piece of Oklahoma, which happened to be oil rich. Having read the book, the comparison to Devil in the White City is more apt than ever  - the true crime lures you in, and the history comes along for the ride. And while the second half of the story, about the birth of the FBI, is fascinating, it's this unburied story of America's treatment of Native Americans that is vital to our understanding of the present.

As one person said, you start out thinking it's a whodunit, and by the end you're wondering "Who didn't dunnit?"

Grann had great success with his previous history, The Lost City of Z, also a national bestseller and the source of a 2018 film. But Killers of the Flower Moon reached a whole new level of fame, shortlisted for the National Book Award and reaching #1 on the paperback New York Times bestseller list.

Here's Greg Curtis writing about the book in The Wall Street Journal: "Reading Mr. Grann’s writing has long given the same pleasure as reading a stylish, finely crafted detective story. It’s no accident that a collection of his stories from The New Yorker and other magazines is titled The Devil and Sherlock Holmes : Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession. And like a master of the detective story, Mr. Grann knows to save the best for last. That is where his meticulous, patient, detailed and often inspired research finally penetrates through the fog of lies and conflicting evidence to the hard ground of truth."

Hoover! It's fascinating what he did with the FBI. You can see how his attempt to bring law and order to the West also planted the seeds for his future problems. And the story is fascinating in how much change happens in the story. Tom White enters the FBI a cowboy and leaves a paper pusher. In that way, I was reminded of the changes the Akhar people went through in a few short years in Lisa See's The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. We think we're dealing with change at a greater magnitude than the past, but history is filled with this kind of thing.

Can I just say that Tom White was an amazing person? I think I was almost more stunned by the way he handled the Kansas prison riot after he left the FBI than I was by his tenaciousness in pursuing the killers of Mollie's family.

So did the In-Store Lit Group like the book? Yes, it was almost unanimous and we had one of our biggest turnouts of the year. But it was the remark of one of the attendees who had mixed feelings that got me thinking. Killers of the Flower Moon is so successful because it manipulates the structure of the story for maximum effect. The coda of the story, at the Osage History Museum, is actually the beginning. People who turn out to be criminals are described in less than heinous brushstrokes. Clues are sprinkled into the story, not piled on. Is that bad if it got us to not only read the book, but recommend it to others?

Contrast this book to an equally worthy tome that just came out, The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America's Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality. Historian Anna-Lisa Cox has been unpacking a story even more forgotten than Grann's. At least in Grann's case, the Osage still remembered. In the case of Cox's, historians have greatly underestimated the number of black pioneers and what led them to disappear into history. But unlike Grann, she had to cut her story to fit a smaller page count. There is more academic explanation, and there needed to be room for notes and references. I found the story fascinating, and passed my copy to friends at the America's Black Holocaust Museum. Cox's version of history much better explains the rise of the KKK in Indiana and environs.

The truth is that The Bone and Sinew of the Land has a story no less fascinating, uncovering history that needs to be told. But the style is for a completely different audience. I said to Cox "There's a trade book in this source material for you to write" and one day she might write it.

Upcoming In-store Lit Group discussions at Boswell:
--Monday, August 27, 7 pm - Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward
--Tuesday, October 2, 7 pm - The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry
--Monday, November 5, 6 pm - The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason
--Monday, December 3, 7 pm - Hotel Silence, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Please note the next three meetings all involve a change of date or time.

Upcoming Sci-Fi Book Club discussions at Boswell:
--Monday, September 10, 7 pm - The Space Between the Stars, by Anne Corlett
--Monday, October 8, 7 pm - An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
--Monday, November 12, 7 pm - Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz
--Monday, December 10, 7 pm - The Freeze-Frame Revolution, by Peter Watts

Upcoming Books and Beer Book Club discussions at Cafe Hollander:
--Monday, August 20, 7 pm - Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose
--Monday, September 17, 7 pm - Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughan
--Monday, October 15, 7 pm - The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak
I will be attending the Mister Monkey discussion. I just finished it!

Upcoming Mystery Group discussions at Boswell:
--Monday, August 27, 7 pm - Death in Nantucket, by Francine Mathews
--Monday, September 24, 7 pm - The Dry, by Jane Harper
--Monday, October 22, 7 pm - Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke

Links to all the books on our Boswell-run book club page.

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