Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Killers of the Flower Moon.jpg

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

In the early 1920s, members of the Osage tribe, made wealthy through oil reserves underneath their reservation, began to die. Some were shot, either in robberies or apparent suicides. Others were poisoned, tainted whiskey being a favorite vehicle. More than one tribal member simply “wasted away,” their deaths attributed to an unknown illness. One woman, Maggie Burkhart, watched as her sisters, mother, and even her daughter died, leaving her in sole possession of a significant fortune. it was almost inevitable that Maggie would begin to fall ill as well . . .

In Washington, J. Edgar Hoover is under a tremendous amount of pressure to prove the worth of his new Investigative Bureau. With local and state authorities unable or unwilling to investigate the Osage deaths, Hoover sends agents to start what would turn into a multi-year investigation, and would set Oklahoman society on edge.

This non-fiction book is written as a murder mystery in three parts. The first part introduces us to the major players, using primary sources from Maggie Burkhart, her family, and other Osage tribe members of the time. The second part is concerned with the FBI’s investigation and is drawn primarily from the memoirs of Agent Tom White, J. Edgar Hoover, and other investigators. The third portion of the book deals with the author’s own investigation into the murders.

The book itself is engagingly written, and the subject matter has been largely forgotten by history. The subject matter itself is compelling and infuriating; the pervasive and institutionalized racism that allowed these crimes to hide amid a thousand lesser forms of violence is nothing short of appalling. The Osage in the 1920s, while millionaires on paper, were treated more like indentured servants. The government would not allow the Osage to manage their own money, each was assigned to a white “guardian” who held complete control of their finances. The abuses such a system would invite are easy to imagine. In addition, the lack of investigation (for years), suggests a breathtaking lack of concern in the swath of deaths; so long as those dying were not white. Indeed, many at the time seemed to think that the “uppity Indians” had brought such violence upon themselves, solely by being richer than their white neighbors.

This is a fantastic example of narrative nonfiction. Grann has created an incredible narrative from this story. The horror the Osage lived with in the first decades of the twentieth century has been lost to history until now, but it is a story that needs to be told. Fans of Erik Larsen will enjoy this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney

To me, Hatshepsut has always been a fascinating woman. She defied all convention and was able to install herself as King in the highly regimented and conservative society of Ancient Egypt. 

Hatshepsut, as the daughter of a Pharaoh, was groomed from birth to be royalty. But her fate was always to be a King’s wife (Egypt did not have queens), and never a ruler in her own right. With the death of her father and her two eldest brothers, Hatshepsut found herself married to her sickly younger brother (in Ancient Egypt, keeping things in the family was taken to horrifying extremes). When their union did not produce a male heir, it seemed as if her father’s dynasty might end after only two generations. Starting as regent to the new infant king (her nephew), Hatshepsut slowly consolidated power around herself, eventually declaring herself co-king, and taking the reins of the ancient world’s most prosperous kingdom.

Early historical research painted Hatshepsut as a conniving, grasping, and devious woman. More recent (and balanced) studies of the Pharoah paint a different picture. Rather than a manipulative Lady Macbeth, Hatshepsut was an intelligent, educated woman who was born with every desired trait necessary to rule Egypt, except of course, the correct genitalia. Cooney paints a vivid account of palace life in Ancient Egypt, and does her best to bring this remarkable woman to life despite the (purposefully) sparse information about her. Cooney has done a remarkable job with this book, using data where she can and inference where she cannot. She is always careful to state what is conjecture and what is not, but at the same time presents the reader with the evidence for her statements. 

The Woman Who Would Be King is currently available for purchase. 

Book Review: Maiden Flight by Harry Haskell

Maiden Flight.jpg

Maiden Flight by Harry Haskell

You’ve surely heard of the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wright Brothers took the first sustained flight in Kitty Hawk in 1903. However,  you may not have heard of the Wright Brothers’ little sister, Katharine.

Katharine helped raise her older siblings, and was the first in the Wright family with a college education. Once her socially awkward brothers became worldwide celebrities, she left her teaching job to help Wilbur and Orville deal with well-wishers, journalists, and irate members of the scientific community. For years, Katharine took care of her older brothers, and with Wilbur’s untimely death in 1912, she and Orville became incredibly close.

While in her 50s, she fell in love with an old school friend, Henry Haskell (the Grandfather of the author). When the two were married in 1923, Orville considered their union the ultimate betrayal. He cut off all ties with his sister and refused to even go to her wedding. Haskell’s book details this period of her life.

The book is engagingly written in the first person, from Orville, Henry, and Katharine’s point of views. The tone is that of a journal entry or a letter to a good friend. Haskell does a good job of creating a unique voice for each of the three, and no wonder: he used their own letters as the primary source for the book. The story stutter-steps through time, doubling back on itself occasionally so we can see certain events through more than one perspective. This occasionally makes the chronology a bit tough to follow, but overall the method worked well.

In fact, my biggest complaint about the book is that there wasn’t more. The characters will reference something in passing, and I generally found myself looking to the Wright brothers’ Wikipedia page (I have a little bit of guilt over that) to get the full story. While I understand that the structure Haskell chose does not lend itself to long, detailed backstory, I do wish he had been able to include more detail.

In all, lovers of history or historical fiction will enjoy this intimate portrayal of a fascinating woman. Katharine Wright is a fiercely intelligent and forward-thinking woman in a time when women’s rights were just starting to take flight (ha).

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Maiden Flight is currently available for purchase.

Book Review: Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill


Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill

 

You’ve read Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and the like, yes? You’ve read any number of the countless mysteries, romances, and adventure stories that are set in the Victorian Era, yes? Well, Therese Oneill is here to answer the questions you didn’t even know you had. The questions you probably wouldn’t even admit to wondering about.

For example, how are you going to get dressed? What does your underwear look like? How do you answer nature’s call? How should you act on your wedding night? How do you keep you husband from bringing back syphilis when he’s out on the town? If you’ve ever wanted to know what Victorians used for toilet paper (LOTS of different things), what you would do when you got your period (try not to panic), what causes consumption (everything) and/or what causes hysteria (everything else, but especially your uterus), then this book is meant for you. Therese Oneill provides a deeply researched, richly detailed look at how women lived in the 19th century. Oh, and she’s hilarious to boot.

Oneill reminds me a great deal of Mary Roach. Her approach is thorough and scientific, but her focus is on those aspects of life generally (and purposefully) left out of the narrative. Oneill’s funny, irreverent tone is sometimes at odds with the subject matter (how easy it is to get committed to an insane asylum, just how limited your life will be, just how common marital infidelity is), but she tackles each subject with gusto, and in these more serious moments, we learn to appreciate just how far we’ve come.

This book is perfect for history buffs, for anyone in love with the era, or for the merely curious. I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. You will thoroughly enjoy this book, and you will learn a hell of a lot in the course of reading it.

An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Unmentionable will be available for purchase on October 25th, 2016.

 

 

Book Review: Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free by John Ferling

Independence John Ferling

 

Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free by John Ferling

This sweeping history focuses not on America’s War for Independence, but on the decade or so before independence was declared. With the French and Indian War over by 1763, Great Britain found itself with a massive war debt, accumulated for the protection of its colonies in America. In order to raise revenue, the British ministry decided to levy a series of taxes on its colonies, perhaps the most infamous of these being The Stamp Act of 1765.

The taxes were wildly unpopular with the American colonists, not least because they had no representation in the British ministry. Protests to the Stamp Act and other taxes enacted by Parliment were met with fierce resistance. Mobs gathered in city streets, leading colonists took to pen and paper, writing tracts decrying the British government for denying their right as British citizens to determine their own destiny.

From these first days in 1765, when for many the main goal of their protest was reconciliation with the motherland, until the hot days of early July, 1776, when independence seemed like an inevitability, Ferling leads us along the path the Founding Fathers took towards declaring the United States its own country. He takes us through the debates in the British Parliment and the arguments between the members of the Continental Congress. The bloody battles and confrontations between the Redcoats and the Continental Army and the political wrangling of the nascent government in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This is a well-written, thoroughly researched book. My only caveat is this: this is a history book. This is not a novel. You will learn a great deal from this book, and Ferling does try to leaven his writing with humor on occasion, but this is first and foremost a history book. Ferling’s goal is to tell us as much as he can, as accurately as he can, and a fair amount of dryness is the inevitable result. I recommend this book to any history buff (Revolutionary or otherwise), or anyone who wants to learn about the path the United States took towards becoming independent.

Book Review: Dead Distillers by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell

Dead Distillers Kings County Distillery

 

Dead Distillers: The Kings County Distillery History of the Entrepreneurs and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell

“WHISKEY, OH WHISKEY, OH WHISKEY ALL NIGHT LONG
OH WHISKEY, OH WHISKEY, OH WHISKEY UNTIL THE BREAK OF DAWN”

– The Tossers “Break of Dawn”

Meed the Dead Distillers: heroes, villains, and forgotten players from America’s past who helped to advance the science of making hard liquor, or make a quick buck, or fund other pursuits, or all of the above. Spoelman and Haskell are the founders of King’s County Distillery in New York (check out their website at http://www.kingscountydistillery.com) and they have pieced together a visually appealing, accessibly written history of American distillers in short, to-the-point format (dare I say, as history shots?)

In this book, we meet businessmen and bootleggers, patriots and presidents, colonists and chemists. We meet lawmakers and mobs, mobsters and soldiers.Suffice it to say: the distillation of alcohol has been an integral and omnipresent part of American history since the very beginning. Between these pages you will find the likes of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Lincoln (Abraham’s father). More recently you will find Al Capone, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniels. You will also find less well known distillers, including a fair number of women who made a name for themselves in what was (and largely still is) a man’s industry.

This is a great book, not only for history buffs or whiskey lovers. Dead Distillers gives us a bit of the history I, personally, love: the parts underneath, or just around back, or hidden away. We all know George Washington as the first president of the United States, as a general, and a cherry tree murderer, but how many know he operated a fairly large distillery at Mount Vernon? And, especially in the case of the more obscure moonshiners, and those distillers whose enterprises failed, they aren’t usually in the history books. They survive in newspaper clippings, local lore, and family stories. These hidden histories are a wonderful store of knowledge, and I applaud anyone who chooses to bring these stories to light.

PS – Just as a personal aside (and a Pittsburgh resident) I’m quite happy to see both Pittsburgh’s Whiskey Rebellion (you read that right) and Wigle Whiskey (Pittsburgh’s own craft distillery, named after one of the rebels) get a mention!

A free copy of this book was provided via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. Dead Distillers is currently available for purchase.