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Chronicle 1: The Marked Woman, Part 1: The Vanishing—2: An Act of God or Man?
1. The Vanishing
The book begins on May 24, 1921, as Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman, becomes increasingly concerned about her older sister’s protracted absence. Because another sister, Minnie, had died a nearly three years earlier, what Mollie believes is her sister’s protracted “spree” strikes a nerve. The chapter turns to an overview of the recent history the Osage. The tribe had been forced to leave their traditional land in Kansas in the 1870s and resettled in northeast Oklahoma. This new territory appeared undesirable but, when oil was discovered, made everyone on the tribal roll rich. In the early 1920s, the Osage were per capita the wealthiest people in the world. White American observers were envious and found the juxtaposition between traditional practices and modern opulence disconcerting.
Mollie works to navigate these cultural gaps. She wears her hair in a traditional way and wraps herself in a blanket, but is married to a white man, Ernest Burkhart. Ernest came to the region from Texas to make his fortune. When Mollie fell in love with him, he accomplished this goal. Although Mollie felt some pressure to marry according to Osage tradition, she married Ernest in 1917. They soon had two children. Mollie’s mother, Lizzie, lived with the Burkharts. On the day that Anna goes missing, Mollie is having a small party. Her sister is drunk when she arrives, annoying Mollie, as the guests include some of Ernest’s racist relatives who are always looking for ways to demean Mollie. Yet Mollie understands that Anna is upset about her recent divorce from Oda Brown. Anna flirts with Ernest’s brother, Bryan, and becomes increasingly belligerent as she drinks. Bryan offers to take Anna home. This is the last time Mollie sees her sister alive.
A few days later, Ernest goes to check on Anna but no one is home. News circulates that another Osage, Charles Whitehorn, has also been missing since May 14. About a week after Anna’s disappearance, an oil worker finds Whitehorn’s body so badly decomposed that it could only be identified by papers in his pockets. Around the same time, in another part of the territory, a man and his son find the body of a woman by a creek. Mollie and her sister, Rita, identify the body as Anna’s by the blanket wrapped around it.
2. An Act of God or Man?
The remote location of Osage County means that law enforcement and criminal investigations still remain in the hands of local amateurs. James and David Shoun, local white doctors, perform Anna’s autopsy while members of the inquest participate in the coroner’s inquest, including Mathis, the manager of Anna’s financial affairs. The Shouns determine that Anna has been dead for five to seven days and that the cause of death is a gunshot wound to the head. A deputy searches for the missing 32-caliber bullet, and although he doesn’t find it, they do find a bottle of moonshine and some tire tracks.
Lizzie is devastated by Anna’s death and her health deteriorates as she wonders if Wah’Kon-Tah (the life force that surrounds everyone and everything in the Osage belief system) no longer holds her family in favor. Mollie plans her sister’s funeral, which combines Osage and Catholic traditions. Mollie pays exorbitant, inflated fees for the casket, embalming, and flowers. At the grave site, both hymns and Osage chants are sung, although the state of Anna’s body means that some Osage rituals cannot be performed.
The book opens with two stories of loss, one personal, the other communal. By pairing these two forms of loss, David Grann immediately correlates Anna Brown’s disappearance with the fraught history of her people, the Osage, a Native American tribe whose traditional homelands include land that now forms the states of Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas. The dislocations differ in fundamental ways, but neither Anna nor her people are where they belong. As it details the context for Anna’s death, the book will shift registers, moving across centuries and from the events of a single family to the trials of the Osage nation. Both stories need to be told, the book implies, and can only be fully understood when narrated in tandem.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a work of nonfiction, but the first section sometimes might seem like a novel. Grann is relating historical events and depicting actors, but he brings the characters to robust life, imagining their feelings and reactions, sometimes even creating dialogue for them. All of this is a standard feature of creative nonfiction, a literary genre that uses some techniques borrowed from fiction to bridge the necessary gaps between an often-partial historical record and the technical needs of long-form narrative. To write a book that is engaging, in other words, a little embellishment is sometimes necessary—and much of Grann’s inventions of this sort occur in the book’s first section, particularly in the representation of Mollie Burkhart, the section’s main character.
Although Anna is missing, it is Mollie’s experiences that organize this narrative. At no point does the reader accompany Anna to the ditch where her body was found. Readers might have only limited access to Mollie’s inner world, a necessary aspect of creative nonfiction, but what she was able to know about her sister’s death shapes the contours of their knowledge. It is worth noting, then, what Grann is willing to extrapolate about Mollie—her actions as she organizes the party, her mounting anxiety at Anna’s continued absence—and what remains off limits. In the next section, the difference between fact and fiction will be an important thematic concern. That is not yet the case in the book’s opening section, although the generic demands of nonfiction shape how the book balances hard fact with some more imaginative moments.
Mollie lives between cultures. Raised in a traditional Osage manner as the pressure of relocation and assimilation mounted, Mollie has nonetheless married a white man and lives, thanks to the tribe’s great wealth, in an American manner. She may have to endure the racism of his husband’s relatives, but hers is still a privileged existence. The Osage were per capita the richest people in the world during the 1920s, a seemingly enviable position but one that racial prejudice complicated and eventually destroyed. At Anna’s funeral, readers get a powerful representation of what it was like to exist between traditions. There is a service in a church, presided over by a priest, and at her grave, a headstone with a Christian phrase. There are also mourners who recite Osage prayer-songs directed at Wah’Kon-Tah. The burial occurs at noon, to correspond with the sun’s moment of apex. Sadly, though, the state of Anna’s body prevented completion of the full range of Osage rituals. Still, mourners honored Anna’s life and mourned her death in multiple ways, mirroring the complexity that shaped much of Mollie’s experience.