Last Updated on August 24, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1166
David Grann’s The Killers of the Flower Moon is a prime example of narrative history, a genre that presents historical facts in the form of a story, complete with a well-developed plot, interwoven subplots and contextual elements, intricately drawn characters, shifting points of view, and literary devices like irony and symbolism. This is nonfiction history that reads much like a novel.
The narrative’s plot is carefully constructed to create and expand tension. The conflict is introduced immediately with Anna Brown’s murder and the ineffective investigation following her death. The book describes how more Osage tribal members turned up dead and the investigations into their murders faltered and grew cold; learning about these events, readers increasingly wonder what was really going on. The Osage were at the mercy of their guardians, and corruption and greed surrounded them on all sides as they continued to be targeted for their lucrative headrights on oil. The tension mounts further with the introduction of the investigation. Tom White, Bureau of Investigation agent, entered the scene and discovered that nothing about this case was really as it seemed. His undercover agents revealed a network of corruption surrounding Bill Hale that ran widely and deeply throughout the community. The narrative reaches its climax during Hale’s trial, and Grann thoroughly resolves the narrative with presentations of the lives of each of the main characters after the case came to a close. Unlike fiction, however, the story cannot completely resolve, for history always leaves unanswered questions.
Grann’s narrative interweaves subplots and contextual elements that add a depth of historical information as well as narrative interest. The development of the Bureau of Investigation led by J. Edgar Hoover is interwoven with the primary plot line, as are discussions of the history of the Osage people and their “cursed blessing” of oil, of private investigators, of the Texas Rangers, of the prison system, and even of gangsters like Al Spencer. Readers gain a broader historical scope as Grann expertly ties each subplot or background element to his primary narrative.
Grann also depicts his characters with novelistic detail. Mollie Burkhart is well-drawn and sympathetic from the beginning, and Grann focuses on her stoicism in the face of terrible tragedy and grief. Bill Hale’s character develops gradually. Grann first presents him as he presented himself: a prosperous businessman and community supporter who strove to be the friend of the Osage. As the narrative progresses, however, the facade shatters, and Hale emerges as a malicious, greedy, manipulative murderer at the head of a network of corruption. Tom White, on the other hand, was steady in his high moral principles from his youth through his final days, but he was not infallible, readily admitting and trying to correct his mistakes. Indeed, these characters are depicted as real human beings in all their complexity.
As the narrative progresses, Grann shifts the story’s point of view several times to allow readers to see the action from different perspectives. He begins the tale through Mollie’s eyes as she worried about the disappearance of her sister Anna and then coped with the murders of several family members. Grann returns to Mollie’s perspective later in the narrative as well, especially during Enrest’s trial. In the book’s second section, Grann moves the primary point of view to that of Tom White, reflecting the central importance of his investigation to the narrative. This perspective allows for a broad view of the evidence, witnesses, questioning, and trials, for White knew the details of the case better than anyone. Finally, Grann tells the final chapters of the story from his own perspective as a researcher. As he met with descendants of those involved in the Reign of Terror and dug deeply into archives, he discovered both answers and more questions. Grann personally entered into the story of the Osage murders as he tried to bring closure to victims’ families and make sure that this piece of history does not become lost and forgotten.
Grann’s chosen genre of narrative history allows him to incorporate literary devices that add creative interest and appeal to the story. Of these, irony and symbolism are especially prominent. Irony stands at the heart of the story of the Osage murders. The very thing that seemed to be the greatest blessing for the Osage—namely, the tribe’s control over the oil reserves—actually led to the exploitation and even murder of hundreds of Native Americans. It was truly a “cursed blessing,” as one Osage writer noted, for if the Osage had no oil wealth, they likely would not have suffered as they did. What was supposed to bring them security and prosperity actually brought them misery.
There is situational irony in several of the characters’ narrative arcs. Mollie had long been ill, and her mother, Lizzie, actually expected that she would die before her sisters, and so she wanted the other girls to care for Mollie. Yet ironically, Mollie outlived her sisters and her mother, and she turned out to be the caregiver in the family. Irony appears again when Tom White turned to the Oklahoma criminal class for information about the murders. When the so-called honest citizens turned their backs on justice for the Osage and engaged in Hale’s network of corruption, the criminals came forward. White often had to prod them, and their information was not always to be trusted, yet their participation finally broke open the case and led to Hale’s conviction.
Grann also incorporates symbolism into his narrative. In the book’s first paragraph, Grann describes the “tiny flowers” that spread across the Oklahoma hills in the spring. These flowers presented a delightful “galaxy of petals,” but they were soon overshadowed and killed by larger, more powerful plants that stole the “light and water” from the delicate blossoms. While this description contributes to the story’s setting , it also stands as a symbol for the Osage people and those who exploited them. Like the small flowers, the Osage were exploited and killed by those who robbed them of their resources and their lives. Symbolism appears again in the lights the Osage left on during the nights of the Reign of Terror. These lights symbolize their fear and their helplessness but also their hope in the face of horror. Finally, the symbolic image of the traveler in the mist appears several times throughout the narrative. Historically, the Osage had relied on these travelers to lead the tribe through times of change and into “unfamiliar realms.” Mollie became one of these travelers as she coped with her family’s murders. Tom White, too, was a traveler in the mist in his investigation of the Osage murders. David Grann even considers himself a traveler in the mist, because he strove to uncover truths that had long been buried. Indeed, the traveler in the mist is a symbol for those who reach out beyond themselves and help others discover a new reality.