The summer of 1919 was one of the darkest times in Omaha’s history.
The lynching of Will Brown, burning of the Douglas County Courthouse, and subsequent race riots still live on as some of the most disturbing events to ever take place in the city.
For author Theodore Wheeler, the infamous time period in Omaha history acts as the backdrop for his debut novel “Kings of Broken Things,” which follows three young outsiders adrift in the city at a time of unprecedented nationalism, xenophobia, and political corruption.
“In April of 1917 is when the U.S. declared war on Germany and entered into World War I and then in September of 1919 was the Omaha race riots and the lynching of Will Brown,” Wheeler said in a phone interview with the Tribune. “When I moved to Omaha 12 years ago I just learned about the history of the city and obviously the race riot of 1919 was a really big part of that and kind of the most spectacular and infamous point in Omaha’s history. So I think I was drawn into that and why it happened and all the different events around it.”
Wheeler will be holding a book signing and presentation for his novel “Kings of Broken Things” at Keene Memorial Library on Sunday, December 3rd from 2-3:30 p.m. The book was published by Little A and released in August.
The story centers around three individuals Karel Miihlstein, Jake Strauss, and Evie Chambers who all become inexorably entagneld with the schemes of a ruthless political boss whose will to power knows no bounds.
Miihlstein is an adolescent immigrant boy from Austria after his family was displaced during the war on the Eastern Front, who discovers he has an unknown talent for America’s favorite pastime.
“Karl discovers that he has a great natural talent for baseball after he moves here, which he had never played before coming to America,” Wheeler said.
Strauss finds his way to Omaha looking for a second chance after committing a violent crime, but soon finds himself right back in his previous ways.
“Strauss is a second generation German immigrant who comes to Omaha after he nearly beats a boy to death in his hometown,” Wheeler said. “He is kind of fleeing from that and ends up with the criminal elements of Omaha at the time based off of his talent for violence basically.”
Chambers is a kept woman trying to make ends meet and looking every which way to escape her cheerless existence.
“Evie Chambers is a kept woman who Jake kind of falls in love with and she is connected to different characters in other ways as the novel plays out,” Wheeler said. “You kind of see her emerging as the novel goes on, getting more control of her own life.”
The novel also includes fictionalized representations of real life Omahan’s such as Tom Dennison, who was a political boss and racketeer during the time, and Josie Washburn who was a prostitute and madam in Omaha who became a reformer later on in life.
Along with including actual historical figures in the novel, Wheeler will also present a variety of photographs from the time period at the signing event at Keene.
“I think especially with Omaha, which has one of the worst records nationally, of preserving historical buildings and tearing down historical districts like Jobbers Canyon which is the largest destruction of a historical site in U.S. history, you can’t walk by these buildings anymore so it is helpful,” Wheeler said. “And for older people who may remember those buildings it is cool for them to be able to see them again and place them and remember a little bit about it.”
The signing event will feature a 20 minute reading of “Kings of Broken Things” by Wheeler along with the photo slide show and a Q&A session following his presentation.
Wheeler is a reporter who covers civil law and politics in Omaha, where he lives with his wife and their two daughters. His fiction has been featured in Best New American Voices, New Stories from the Midwest, the Southern Review, the Kenyon Review, and Boulevard and received special mention in a Pushcart Prize anthology.
A graduate of the MFA program at Creighton University, Wheeler was a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany; a resident of the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City; and a winner of the Marianne Russo Award from the Key West Literary Seminar. He is the author of Bad Faith, a collection of short fiction.