I received this book free from Net Galley, courtesy of Doubleday, in exchange for an honest review. It looked like a fascinating read, but I am disturbed by the sources chosen, which sent up all sorts of red flags right from the get-go and before I had even focused on the references themselves, a due diligence that has to be done before any nonfiction work can be recommended. Once I examined the references, I concluded that so many of them are so questionable that nobody, including the writer, can demonstrate anything beyond the premise of the book itself to be true. The killings happened; that’s about it.
I am perplexed, because this kind of error is the sort I’d expect from a novice, perhaps a zealous but careless graduate student bent on self-publication come hell or high water. Grann, however, is an established journalist who’s written for solid mainstream publications. He’s published successful novels. This is his first nonfiction book, and I am surprised that it went to press without his own eyes or those of his publisher finding the glaring problems here.
Early in the text a fact is documented with a block quote from one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, a series of YA novels loosely based on the author’s experiences during the Westward Movement, as Euro-Americans pushed the frontier back and took possession of Native territory. Many years ago, an interviewer challenged Wilder on a scene in one of her books, one in which a man recounts having been surrounded, chased, and threatened by wolves. The interviewer pointed out that wolves don’t do that, and Wilder tartly responded that she wasn’t aware that she had been supposed to be writing history or biology, but rather stories she had made up for little children to read. Her only nonfiction is a memoir she wrote later in life, which was not as widely seen.
This historical fiction, then, is Grann’s source material, and the fact that he chooses to give it a block quote also makes me wonder…if this is his good reference, what do the others look like?
A great many other sources are newspapers from what was then Western territory, newspapers from Oklahoma and elsewhere during the early 1800s. This is suspect material. There were no laws against printing inaccurate material, and journalists from this period often printed lies, sons of lies, and interviews based on lies, because there was absolutely no risk of penalty for doing so. To use sources like these, the very least a writer should do is find legitimate sources that agree with the questionable sources and cite both. This doesn’t happen here.
I have no idea why a good house like Doubleday would release this book, or why the writer didn’t use credible sources. Maybe he couldn’t find anything else, but that’s speculation, and I’ve just explained why nonfiction should not be based on guess work, on fiction based loosely on fact, or on unreliable sources, so I won’t take this line any further lest I be guilty of the same.
I was going to close by recommending that the reader just looking for a good story and not concerned about the research might like the book, but then I am confronted by the other unfortunate aspect of this story: I was pushing myself through it. I wasn’t spellbound, but as long as I believed there might be new information to be learned, I was ready to force myself to read this book, tedious though it is. With a DRC, I generally figure that once I’ve signed on, I have to make good on my promise. I wasn’t reading because I was absorbed; once I got a sense of the narrative I was reading out of duty, and out of the hope that at some point this thing would pick up steam. My hope was derailed by the bad source material.
Not this time.