A few weeks ago I went down to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which educates about lynching in America and how its legacy of racial violence echoes through our society today. Unsurprisingly, the visit was such a powerful experience. As a result of the research I’ve done over the past decade, some of which is posted here, I arrived knowing many of the facts about lynching in America, but the memorial is an effecting piece of art in the way your physical perspective changes while walking through, so that the hanging casks (each of which represents a county where a lynching was committed, and which features the names and dates of those murdered) start off at eye-level and are hanging above you by the end. It’s a devastating piece, in a necessary way. Here are some photos I took:
For almost a year now I’ve had the privilege of working with a coalition of folks here in Omaha to bring a replica of the Douglas County cask that’s on display in Montgomery. Thanks to the tireless work of people like Vickie Young, Chris Whitt, Franklin Thompson, the Kingfisher Institute at Creighton, and many others with the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation, there will hopefully be a dedication of the cask near the site of the Will Brown lynching this September, which of course is the centenary. Keep an ear out for that.
Here is the poem “Invocation” by Elizabeth Alexander, which is featured at the end of the memorial and is of an emotional coda for the experience.
The wind brings your names.
We will never dissever your names
nor your shadows beneath each branch and tree.
The truth comes in on the wind, is carried by water.
There is such a thing as the truth. Tell us
how you got over. Say, Soul I look back in wonder.
Your names were never lost,
each name a holy word.
The rocks cry out—
call out each name to sanctify this place.
Sounds in human voices, silver or soil,
a moan, a sorrow song,
a keen, a cackle, harmony,
a hymnal, handbook, chart,
a sacred text, a stomp, an exhortation.
Ancestors, you will find us still in cages,
despised and disciplined.
You will find us still mis-named.
Here you will find us despite.
You will not find us extinct.
You will find us here memoried and storied.
You will find us here mighty.
You will find us here divine.
You will find us where you left us, but not as you left us.
Here you endure and are luminous.
You are not lost to us.
The wind carries sorrows, sighs, and shouts.
The wind brings everything. Nothing is lost.
Hey, loyal readers. I hope you’re doing well. Things have been busy here around the Wheeler homestead, what with a few more readings to promote Kings of Broken Things, I spoke with Mary Hartnett on Siouxland Public Radio about Tom Dennison’s legacy in Omaha, saw Kings named as having one of the best book covers of the year by Book Riot, and most recently appeared on the Writing Fun YouTube channel to talk about the process of writing historical fiction and whether or not I’m into the MLB post-season even though the Royals didn’t make it this year. (Meh.) Along with teaching fiction writing at UNO again this fall, starting Dundee Book Company, and that whole full-time job and family thing, I’ve been busy.
A couple more things.
First, I’d like to point out that the hardcover edition of Kings of Broken Things is now 49% off at Amazon. I know many of you already have the book, but if you don’t yet have a copy, or don’t yet have the beautiful hardcover version, and have been waiting for the price to drop online, here you go.
Lastly, Carrie Meyer from the Durham Museum was kind enough to send along some images from our awesome Objects of Inspiration event at the museum a few weeks ago with my fellow Omaha historical novelists Timothy Schaffert and Andrew Hilleman. It was such a fun event, made even more special by the select artifacts that Carrie had pulled from the Durham’s archive. Specifically related to Kings, there was a WWI-era doughboy uniform and an amazing zither. See below for the full gallery. (All photos were taken by Dawn Myron and appear courtesy of the Durham Museum.)
Now we’re all caught up.
With pub day for Kings of Broken Things rapidly approaching (tomorrow!) a few more interviews and reviews should be coming out this week–including this Q&A I did with the Omaha Public Library for their blog.
Thanks to librarian Erin Duerr for the great questions and for helping to promote my book!
OPL: Kings of Broken Things is set during the Omaha Race Riot of 1919. What drew you to this time in Omaha’s history?
TW: For the last 10 years, I’ve worked as a reporter for a news service and covered a beat at the Douglas County courthouse, which, of course, was the site of the race riot and lynching. I’d first heard of the riot when I was in fourth grade, growing up in Lincoln, and it has stuck in my mind ever since. Spending so much time at the courthouse, it was something I thought about almost every day while walking the halls, stairs, and surrounding neighborhood. Beyond that, it was such a chaotic and inventive age, notably in art, technology, and transportation. The grief over World War I was experienced over this backdrop in such an expansive way–this notion of the “war to end all wars,” that it was so abominable that it couldn’t be repeated. This feeling was echoed in Omaha after the lynching of Will Brown, by the way, that the tragedy would spur society to improve and never repeat its mistakes. Given that context, it’s troubling to think that the U.S. has been at war my entire adult life. Following World War I, you see a lot of intense examination of the psychic damage war causes. These similarities in the art and culture of the era are attractive to me and my art, and the time is still recognizably Modern in other ways too. Like most historical fiction, it’s a convenient way to think about our own times.
As promised, here’s a link to the book review by Andrew Willis that was published yesterday in the Lincoln Journal-Star. It’s really quite a perceptive take on the book and the moral argument I’m trying to make through sports analogies, particularly since the review is pretty short.
I’m very grateful for the amazing coverage provided by LJS this weekend. It’s the newspaper I grew up reading, so that makes it more special. In fact, I believe they were my first publication outside of articles I wrote for my high school newspaper, when they published a letter to the editor I’d submitted in support of reading banned books in school.
Here’s an excerpt from the review:
“Kings of Broken Things” is a subtly powerful novel that sneaks up on the reader. Only after the race riots and lynching of Willie Brown does the reader question the justice of the mob’s earlier apprehension of a criminal known as The Cypriot. Only after the kids discussed the race riots “like this was a football game with a rival team” does the reader understand Jake’s earlier reaction to 1918 Cornhuskers/Notre Dame football game he attended: “The game ended in a 0-0 tie, and Jake couldn’t figure what good the struggle did either squad. For hours they pushed and shoved and threw bombs downfield as hard as their might allowed. They punched and scratched and shouted and swore. Traded territory. Were injured. And for nothing. Not even one lousy point.” How could Karel and Jake and all the others compromise their consciences to be swept along with the mob? Perhaps the reader already knows; perhaps the reader is already subconsciously complicit. Consider these damaged characters, a torched courthouse, and a dark stain on Omaha’s history. Among these broken things, Wheeler is crowned royalty.
This is some special news I’ve been sitting on for several months–so it’s with great pleasure that I share that my novel Kings of Broken Things is a Kindle First selection for July!
For those who don’t know, Kindle First is a free program that offers early access to select books from across Amazon Publishing at a discounted price. So, while my publication date remains August 1 for the print and audio editions, anyone in the US can get the Kindle edition early for $1.99, or for free if you’re a Prime member.
Anyway, click on the link for more information. It’s a great deal and a special honor for APub authors. Only six books a month are chosen and they must be nominated by their edition to be considered. Thanks so much to my amazing editor Vivian Lee and the rest of the team at Little a for pulling this together.
Here’s what Vivian had to say about Kings and why she nominated it for the program:
“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.'”
I’m so excited to share with you the front cover of my new novel Kings of Broken Things, out from Little A on August 1!
The cover turned out so well, I couldn’t be more pleased and excited to share the book with you all this summer. Thanks are due to Christina Chung, who did the illustration, and Vivian Lee, my editor at Little A, who painstakingly worked through many versions until this was just right. Their hard work paid off big time, in my opinion. What do you all think?
The book is now available for pre-order in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and audio editions. The audio edition is a new addition, for all you road warriors and commuters out there. If you’re so inclined, put in your order now and have the book arrive on August 1.
A couple months ago I posted some photos from my February trip to Stuttgart and performance of “Omaha Uninitiated: Stateside Race Riots & Lynching in the Aftermath of World War I.” Now the art, science & business program of Akademie Schloss Solitude has posted some video of the performance on their web site for the ongoing “Quotes & Appropriations” series. Unfortunately the video and music montage portion of Omaha Uninitiated–basically Darren Keen’s part–can’t be put online because of copyright laws. That’s really too bad, as Darren did some great work. However, if everything goes as planned with the novel that’s based on this same material we’ll be reprising Omaha Uninitiated before long in even more venues.
Thanks so much to Jean-Baptiste Joly, Lotte Thieroff, Valeska Neumann, Hagen Betzwieser, and everyone at Akademie Schloss Solitude for making this possible, and more specifically for producing this video. Also, a special thanks to The Durham Photo Archive, Omaha Public Library, and Omaha World-Herald for the use of images presented in the video.
Check it out!
A quick note that I’ll be at the Douglas County Historical Society’s “Pages from Our Past” event on Tuesday, June 23 to read from my chapbook On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown. We’ll discuss the elements of Omaha history that went into the writing of the book–and probably a few elements that didn’t.
If you missed the local launch party at Pageturners and my reading at Indigo Bridge Books, here’s your chance. Come meet the author!
See below for all this info:
Tuesday, June 23. 530-630pm.
Douglas County Historical Society / Library Archives Center
Fort Omaha / 5730 N. 30 St, Omaha, NE
omahahistory.org/calendar.html (See the bottom of the page for information on how to register.)
Douglas County Historical Society will feature Nebraska author Theodore Wheeler’s novella On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown at our June 23rd Page from Our Past author event taking place from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the DCHS Library Archives Center. The program focuses on history-based authors, both of fiction and non-fiction, and is held the fourth Tuesday of each month in the evening. A Page from Our Past is a casual and intimate roundtable discussion, where the audience has the opportunity to get up close and personal with the authors. Each program concludes with a book signing and time to meet one-on-one with the featured author.
On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown is the story of an immigrant boy who’s caught up in a race riot and lynching, based on events surrounding the Omaha Race Riot of 1919. While trying to find a safe place in the world after being exiled from his home during a global war, Karel Miihlstein is caught in a singular historical moment and one of America’s most tragic episodes.
Theodore Wheeler lives in Omaha with his wife and two daughters, where he is a legal reporter covering the civil courts of Nebraska.
Cost to participate in these discussions is $5 for members and $10 for non-members. Pre-registration is required and seating will be limited to 20 participants. To register, email email@example.com or call 402-455-9990, ext. 101.