Welcome to Read This Book, a newsletter where I recommend one book that I think you absolutely must read. The books will vary across genre and age category to include new releases, backlist titles, and classics. If you’re ready to explode your TBR, buckle up!
Today’s pick is a good one if you like to read the book before watching the movie, because a movie adaptation from Martin Scorsese is out this fall! Content warning for murder, genocide, racism, and violence.
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In the 1920s, the Osage people were the wealthiest people per capita in the United States. This was due to the oil that was discovered on the reservation that the government had forced them on decades earlier, and to some smart thinking on the tribe’s part that ensured they owned the mineral rights beneath the allotments they were given. But in 1921, investigators found the body of a woman named Anna Brown, who had been murdered. Her death brought awareness to a string of murders that continued for the next few years, terrorizing the Osage Nation and putting everyone on edge. Fearful of a scandal, J. Edgar Hoover sent an agent of the Bureau of Investigation to try and solve the case. What he uncovered instead was a vast conspiracy to rob the Osage of their wealth and destroy their community.
This is not an easy book to read, but the amount of research and detail that Grann has put in is really extensive, and you’ll come away with not only a better understanding of the injustices that the Osage faced but also the oil mania in the U.S. in the early 20th century and how so many people suffered as a result. The tragedy of the Reign of Terror, as it is known among the Osage, is the story of America — how white supremacy wasn’t satisfied with robbing the Osage of their land, their way of life, and their dignity, but that too many white people would stoop so low as to trick, trap, and murder the Osage for their money. At times, reading this account feels almost too much — surely the conspiracy wasn’t that far-reaching, wasn’t that nefarious? But through careful reporting and an attentive eye to the historical record, Grann proves that it was that bad, and probably worse than the historical record can ever tell us. The majority of the book reads like an engaging history, and Grann skillfully juggles many different people, timelines, and narrative threads to build out a full account. In the final section of the book, he allows himself into the story, and shows how in the course of researching this book, he discovered that the crimes and conspiracies went much farther than the FBI records show, and how through talking with descendants of the victims and combing archives, he was even able to find answers to a few lingering mysteries. No one was safe in Osage County in the 1920s, not even the very few white people who attempted to expose the murderers.
This is an absorbing and sobering story, but one of those necessary histories that must be told. Definitely pick it up before the movie is released in October!