Sometimes Cormac McCarthy writes a great American novel; every so often the Coen brothers make a great American film – and in the best traditions of American journalism, someone comes up with a story that cuts to a kernel of the national narrative; here is one of those.
The timing of David Grann’s historical investigation into the systematic murder of Osage Native Americans in Oklahoma during the first quarter of the 20th century could not be more cogent. In the time it took to write his own signature, President Donald Trump in January negated months of protest, and a rare victory, by the Standing Rock Lakota nation in stopping a gas pipeline through sacred lands and a reservoir crucial to the tribe’s water supply. Trump overturned a moratorium on the pipeline, which now proceeds regardless of the Native nation’s ancestral rights and traditions, wellbeing and sensibilities.
Grann’s story is an ancestor to this tragedy: about how the cynical greed of the initial oil rush, and quick money it promised, led to a sinister – but also singular — persecution and mass murder of the Osage.
We are horribly accustomed to histories of the obliteration of culturally and spiritually rich Native nations who have little care for monetary wealth, and the entrapment of the survivors on barren “reservations”. This, however, is the story of a nation, the Osage, driven on to what the white man thought was another patch of dust; but beneath which, it emerged, lay one of the richest oilfields in America. The Osage had an inkling of this, and were wise enough, in their treaty of subjugation, to retain rights to whatever lay below the ground ceded to white man’s law.
The deception and destruction of those people was multilayered. It began with the imposition of the “allotment” system, which crushed the collectivity of Native land ownership. When oil was struck, a system was devised whereby the Native owners of the headrights would lease them to “guardians”, who then set about what became known as “the Indian business” of appropriating the Osage’s rightful wealth.
Some Osage did make millions from their oil headrights, and even though measures were imposed to stop them spending it freely, this wealth was one thing the whites could not abide.
Though Grann does not write like a McCarthy or a McMurtry, you forget sometimes that this is not fiction in their vein
But Grann’s book is not about generalities; it is principally about one matriarchal Osage family, and the devilish plot to murder its womenfolk one by one, in a coldly calculated order, as would gradually bequeath their riches to white speculators in the end by the only viable means: inheritance. And here lies the macabre intimacy that marks this out from other stories of mass killing of American Indians: inheritance, of course, entailed marrying Native women, raising children with them while knowing the plan’s murderous outcome.
Mollie Burkhart was among the Osage who rode in the back of a big car (while retaining tribal customs and dress) after oil was found under her parcel of land. Married to an apparently loving white man, she saw her mother, Lizzie, wither away, poisoned; her sister Anne shot; another sister, Rita, blown up; and was herself injected by two doctors, brothers charged with her care – not with insulin, but poison. She recovered only when away from their “treatment”.
Mollie thought her white husband, Ernest, to be her champion, as she set out to unravel the cruel mysteries. And even more so his reputable uncle, William Hale, who presented himself as ally and father figure to the beleaguered, hated Osage – a pillar of decency and law in a lawless land. But Mollie ends up sitting alone in the public gallery of a courtroom, watching the man she married, father of her children, finally testify in the trial of Hale – mastermind of the entire grisly plot – that he had himself been part of it all the while, scheming the deaths of all Mollie’s family, and finally her own, to inherit all they had.
And here a second theme emerges, a twist. With local “law enforcement” entirely in the hands of a corrupt oligarchy, whose purpose was to break the law, the killing of the Osage became the first major murder investigation, and cause celebre, of the FBI, and its ambitious new director, J Edgar Hoover.
The book’s second lead character is Tom White, an investigator in a noble tradition, whose interests happened to coincide with Hoover’s weird opportunism. White cracks the case, using guile, new forensic methods and exploitation of the fears and grudges of the very crooks Hale had used, now turned against him.
Though Grann does not write like a Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry, one can forget sometimes that this is historical investigation, and not fiction in their vein. Then turn the page, and there are photographs of the characters about whom we are reading, from the archive, in real life.
Grann writes a moving coda, whereby he advances White’s work from the papers, solving the murders of anyone closing in on the truth around the Hale/Burkhart crimes, but also of other Osage – unconnected to Mollie’s family, therefore establishing that his is not a singular tale but one of “countless other killings” of similar kind. Then, to join the final dots between past and present, Grann relates a meeting with – and publishes a picture of – Mollie’s granddaughter Margie. He also finds the descendant of another murder victim called Vaughan: “chasing history, even as it was slipping away”, he writes, for this lady dies shortly after Grann meets her and relates the horror he has found.
The genocide by white America against Native nations during the century leading up to Grann’s period is a metaphor for humanity’s decimation of the natural world which the Natives saw as sacred. If President Trump’s running roughshod over the Standing Rock Lakota is an echo of that initial devastation, so Grann’s book is a timely and disturbing chapter in the original, terrible atrocity.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99