Groups join forces to support 'Community Read' event in Brookings

Book chosen is 'Killers of the Flower Moon,' by David Grann

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BROOKINGS — Books can drive discussion and dialogue: in classes both formal and informal; in book clubs; and in some instances in a “Community Read.” One such book that does all of these is “Killers of the Flower Moon,” by David Grann, published in 2017 and followed by a film of the same name in 2023. 

Promoting, facilitating, and hosting the book as a "Community Read" are professors Sharon Smith and Jason McEntee, also director of South Dakota State University School of English and Interdisciplinary Studies. Helping bring the project to fruition via two discussions, the movie and a lecture by the author is the South Dakota Humanities Council.

McEntee received an $8,500 grant from the SDHC; with that funding, he purchased 650 copies of the book, which are being distributed in Brookings, Sioux Falls, and at 17 tribal schools and colleges.

“I read the book over the course of a couple of days (in spring 2023),” McEntee said. “It’s a great read. It’s a very powerful read. It’s a very frustrating read, to say the least. You would read it in one sitting except you to have to walk away from it from time to time, because it’s just so unbelievable — like the awful things that happened.”

He was moved enough by the book, which is also referenced as “The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” that he decided to try to “bring David Grann to come and talk.” The director reached out to the author, via his agent, and found out the cost of such a visit. It is not cheap.

A few days later, in May, while having a monthly meeting, over lunch, with Dean Lynn Sargent, College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences — and having Grann’s book with him — he recapped his visit with Grann’s agent and the cost of bringing the author here. Her response: “Why not? Let’s see what we can do.” His response was to get cracking and raise the money.

“I began to put together ‘a coalition of the willing,’” McEntee said, laughing hearily. “We have all sorts of, I want to say no fewer than 13 or 14 campus and Humanities Council partners and the Fishback Foundation and things like that in Brookings. It was overwhelming how many people just immediately said, ‘I’ll give $1,000, ‘I’ll give $2,000.’ Next thing you know, after a couple of weeks, we had enough money to bring Grann in.” 

The contract was completed and April 5 was set for Grann’s visit. To schedule his visit that far out was necessitated by the author’s popularity, which was further boosted by a major movie with the same name as the book.

“He’s one of the hot tickets on the lecture circuit right now,” McEntee noted. “He’s also promoting his new book: ‘The Wager.’ He’s kind of doing a double dip here.”

How about a ‘Community Read’?

With Grann’s visit locked in, which the director considered a “pretty significant victory (for the school he directs),” he got to thinking about “some sort of a community-read type event surrounding his visit. And how would we do it?”

“It’s a contemporary Western,” McEntee said of Grann’s book. “But it’s also a mob story; it’s also a political story; it’s also an oil story; cops and robbers; a love story: the birth of the FBI.

“It’s got so many angles for discussion. It’s really a fabulous read. There’s really no structure. We’re going to have some talking points, but it’s mostly to get people together to talk about the book, to talk about their experiences with reading it. If they’ve seen the movie, we can talk about that. That’s the story.”

The director is “still working out the logistics” for the movie tickets. He has arranged one theater with 300 seats reserved. “We are holding out some hope that we can get a second theater.” There will be some free tickets; patrons should be warned that it’s long — some critics say too long: 3 hours and 35 minutes.

McEntee lauded Grann for his generosity: “He has been absolutely fantastic. He has been so generous with his time. He is doing two different one-hour sessions in the afternoon on campus with two different student and faculty groups. He’s having a sit-down invite-only dinner with all of the tribal leaders from the state. There’s going to be a dialogue taking place at that.”

“He’s incredibly friendly,” said Jennifer Widman, SDHC interim executive director. She had met the author at the 2023 Festival of Books in Deadwood. She added, “He’s very flexible, generous and down to earth. He’s wonderful to work with. He is not a diva.”

“He’s fully aware of the 'Community Read' and super-excited that we’re doing it,” McEntee added.

J. Edgar Hoover, birth of the FBI  

 “The narrative is a pretty straightforward crime narrative — and I’m not trying to belittle the events and the murders and all of that,” McEntee explained. “The Osage discover oil in the early 1920s and they immediately become not only one of the richest — not only tribes but richest areas population-wise in the nation.

“And, of course, what ends up happening is predominately white men see an  opportunity here to get land and, in fact, oil-rich land. So the issue then becomes white men coming in and either outright murdering Osage for their titles;but also in one of the main narratives of the book and certainly the main narrative of the movie is the Ernest Burkhart character marrying an Osage, under false pretenses, and slowly murdering her and getting her title to the land.”

MCEntee also noted additional elements of the book that included “the nefariousness of politicians … corruption and greed.”

Also to be noted in the book is “how the FBI develops. … It’s their very first case. In many ways, it’s the birth of modern forensics and modern investigation. … (FBI Director) J. Edgar Hoover gets mentioned in the movie maybe once but he’s a factor in the book.

“He’s making all these decisions. The FBI ends up taking on not only the criminal element but they’re also taking on the local law enforcement, who are embedded with the criminals. So it’s like law against law.”

As to the book vs. the movie? McEntee recommends reading the book before seeing the movie. The movie — even though long at 3 hours, 35 minutes — “crams so much in there. The last part feels very rushed.”

“One of the biggest contrasts between the book and the movie is that there’s so much focus on the love story in the movie,” Widman noted. “So you get a lot less about the investigation and the sort of moral conundrum that some of the FBI (agents) are in in terms of how they navigate this and keep themselves safe. You get a lot more of that (in the book).”

Community effort gets it done 

This "Community Read" truly comes about via a community effort by the people and agencies noted above — and others. As to the book, copies are available for check out at:

  • Brookings Public Library
  • SDSU Hilton M. Briggs Library
  • Brookings High School Library
  • Brookings Mickelson Middle School Library

The schedule of events includes: at 7 p.m. Feb. 27 and March 19, in Rotunda D on the SDSU campus, a discussion of “Killers of the Flower Moon” ("The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI”), facilitated by professors  Sharon Smith and Jason McEntee.

The movie “Killers of the Flower Moon” will be screened at 5 p.m., March 27 at Brookings Cinema 8. Additional details about getting tickets will be forthcoming.

On April 5 at 7 p.m., in Larson Memorial Concert Hall, SDSU Performing Arts Center, David Grann will present a lecture and book signing.

For more information contact Jason McEntee at Jason.McEntee@sdstate.edu.

Contact John Kubal at jkubal@brookingsregister.com.