With characters depicted in precise detail and wide panorama—a kept-woman’s parlor, a contentious interracial baseball game on the Fourth of July, and the tragic true events of the Omaha Race Riot of 1919—Kings of Broken Things reveals the folly of human nature in an era of astonishing ambition.
During the waning days of World War I, three lost souls find themselves adrift in Omaha, Nebraska, at a time of unprecedented nationalism, xenophobia, and political corruption. Adolescent European refugee Karel Miihlstein’s life is transformed after neighborhood boys discover his prodigious natural talent for baseball. Jake Strauss, a young man with a violent past and desperate for a second chance, is drawn into a criminal underworld. Evie Chambers, a kept woman, is trying to make ends meet and looking every which way to escape her cheerless existence.
As wounded soldiers return from the front and black migrant workers move north in search of economic opportunity, the immigrant wards of Omaha become a tinderbox of racial resentment stoked by unscrupulous politicians. Punctuated by an unspeakable act of mob violence, the fates of Karel, Jake, and Evie will become inexorably entangled with the schemes of a ruthless political boss whose will to power knows no bounds.
Written in the tradition of Don DeLillo and Colum McCann, with a great debt to Ralph Ellison, Theodore Wheeler’s debut novel Kings of Broken Things is a panoramic view of a city on the brink of implosion during the course of this summer of strife.
“For its descriptions of the violent outcomes of prejudice and political misconduct, this novel at once illuminates a savage moment in history and offers a timely comment on nationalism and racism. An unsettling and insightful piece of historical fiction.”
–Kirkus Reviews, 5/15/17
“Readers will be drawn into Wheeler’s careful re-creation of a turbulent time.”
“[…] a subtly powerful novel that sneaks up on the reader. ” “Among these broken things, Wheeler is crowned royalty.” – Lincoln Journal Star, 7/30/17.
“Wheeler’s at his best during set-piece descriptions that bring the flavor of the time and place, and the people who inhabit it, vividly into focus… The riot scenes, especially, are propulsive and harrowing. Just reading it can make you feel complicit in the violence.” “As a novel that brings a little-known or forgotten past to life, it succeeds in showing us a glimpse of where we’ve come from and how we came to be.” – Kansas City Star, 8/27/17.
“Wheeler moves seamlessly through the minds of several characters experiencing the events from different perspectives, showing how the mob’s crazed energy worked as a poison that compelled some observers to engage in acts they would later abhor.” – The Rumpus, 1/3/18.
“Wheeler’s debut novel is set among the rich ethnic and immigrant communities of Omaha during the final chaotic days of World War I. Karel Miihlstein tries to escape from the war in Europe. Jake Strauss committed a violent act that forced him from home. Evie Chambers wants to leave the life of a kept woman supported by gamblers. They come together as the city experiences serious political, social, and racial changes. Traumatized U.S. soldiers return home to find their factory and stockyard jobs filled by African Americans moving north from the segregated South. White men and women compete against blacks in both employment and baseball. Unscrupulous local politicians stoke racial tensions for their own gain, culminating in a horrible act of mob violence. Wheeler places his range of colorful characters within the broad span of American history in the early part of the 20th century.” –Library Journal.
Red Summer Revisited: “It was an era rife with drama, and it now serves as a compelling backdrop for a novel.”
–Omaha World-Herald, 8/27/17
“Revolving around the 1919 Omaha riots of mob boss Tom Dennison, the novel is well-researched and resonant in today’s hostile racial and corporation-centric environment.”
–The Coil, “Best Books of 2017,” 12/5/17
“The heat and violence are vivid, and although almost one hundred years in the past, the political machinations that stirred up the mob and the racism feel all too contemporary right now.”
–Historical Novel Society, 8/1/17
“Wheeler’s prose is often evocative, particularly when writing about Karel, his youngest protagonist. Rarely a wrong note is struck with his description of the young immigrant’s adjustment to life in Nebraska. Most memorable are the passages devoted to baseball. Even readers who don’t appreciate the sport will have to grudgingly respond to the game as Wheeler writes it.”
–13th Floor Magazine, 11/8/17.
All About Books with Pat Leach, NET Nebraska Public Radio. 9/5/17.
The Exchange with Mary Hartnett, KWIT Siouxland Public Radio. 9/20/17.
Midwestern Gothic with Sydney Cohen, 10/27/17.
Q&A with Omaha Public Library, 7/27/17.
“Five questions with Nebraska Author Theodore Wheeler” – Lincoln Journal Star, 7/30/17
“In recordings from the era (up through the Depression, really) that unrehearsed, raw, acoustic aspect of sound is very appealing to me, to the point that most of the contemporary bands I’m into reach for this sound of authenticity. More than anything, musically, this is probably the closest corollary with writing a novel that’s set a century ago—that is, cultivating a voice that’s both historical and modern, a sound that incorporates some of the machinery and phrasing of the day but is simultaneously new.”
–Largehearted Boy Book Notes Feature, 8/2/17
“Beyond the historical underpinnings, Wheeler also has a vibrant coming-of-age tale for a young immigrant in Omaha who stands witness to the city’s ugly growing pains.”
–Creighton Today, 8/3/17
Interview with Meredith Allison Lea on the Persnickety Proofer, 8/21/17.
Writing Fun with Michelle Dunton, 10/23/17.
Must-Read Indie Novels Coming This Summer: “an explosive moment in America’s history ripe for a literary examination.”
–Barnes & Noble, B&N Reads, 6/21/17
13 Must-Reads of Summer: “The novel will be of special interest to locals, as its story revolves around the real-life Omaha race riot of 1919.”
–Omaha World-Herald, 6/26/17
12 Breakthrough Historical Novels for Summer 2017. Bookbub, 8/29/17.
Momaha Bookshelf. Momaha Magazine, December 2017.
Goodreads Featured Release for August 2017.
Book Riot: “Best Book Covers from Now Until 2018”
“Set during the Red Summer, Kings of Broken Things perfectly encapsulates both the frailty and darkness of the volatile period that saw the end of World War I, the shift from an agrarian to industrial society, Heartland baseball, and the brutal lynching of Will Brown that led to the Omaha Race Riot. Powerful and resonant, this book’s relevance, in the context of today’s concerns, cannot be overstated.”
—Julie Iromuanya, author of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor
“A beautifully written novel about an ugly, tumultuous time in history, Kings of Broken Things is an exciting, gritty portrait of a corrupt American city on the edge of self-destruction. It’s a novel that simmers, like Doctorow’s Ragtime, leaning forward always toward its powerful final chapters. Whether writing about violins or baseball or bordellos, Wheeler demonstrates a dazzling talent for bringing history alive, offering breathtaking insights into the hearts and minds of these immigrants and outsiders.”
—Timothy Schaffert, author of The Swan Gondola
“The rhythms of baseball run through the prose of Kings of Broken Things, as the game becomes a gateway into the stories we tell ourselves about America. This is a book that questions those stories and gives itself over to the conflict at the core of them, all told in sentences that skip along like a perfectly struck ground ball.”
—Matthew Salesses, author of The Hundred-Year Flood
“In this beautifully written debut novel, Theodore Wheeler takes us back to a crossroads in American history, a time full of the innocence of our childhood when the joys of simple pleasures were beginning to be tainted by the growing awareness of a darkness at the core of the American Dream. This is a novel for our time as we collectively face an uncertain future and ask ourselves how the daily shootings and injustices can be stopped. Wheeler possesses a powerful voice that reminds us that wrong doesn’t become merely historical, it lives forever, no matter how hard we try to erase the memory. Readers will learn from reading this novel, experience empathy and perhaps read the daily news with greater compassion. I recommend this novel be read and reread.”
—Jonis Agee, author of The Bones of Paradise
“In this marvelous debut novel, Theodore Wheeler’s clean and unsentimental prose takes us into the rough streets of Omaha’s River Ward at the end of the First World War. Wheeler skillfully wields historical facts and imagination to give life to immigrants and the sons of immigrants as they are swept up in American ways—from baseball and election politics to the tragic lynching of a black man named Will Brown. This is a book whose characters and scenes will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.”
—Mary Helen Stefaniak, author of The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia
“It is 1917 and Omaha is home to a diverse array of refugees and immigrants from war-torn European countries. Jake, Karel, and Evie are coming of age in a time of increasing nationalism, xenophobia, and political corruption. And with wounded soldiers returning from war but finding their jobs have been filled by black migrants from the south, Omaha now looks to be a tinderbox of racial resentment, gleefully stoked by the corrupt, moneyed politicians running the town. Wheeler masterfully creates multiple layers and hidden depths in these characters and the worlds they inhabit in restrained, yet powerful language. Intertwining scenes of the annual Interrace baseball game, a town navigating a false accusation that leads to the real-life lynch mob that burns down parts of Omaha in what is now called the Red Summer of 1919, and the characters’ acts of love and survival in all their complicated forms, Kings of Broken Things is heavy, yes, but will stay with you for a very long time. To quote PEN/Faulkner finalist Julie Iromuanya, ‘This book’s relevance, in the context of today’s concerns, cannot be overstated.'”
—Vivian Lee, Editor, Little A
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