100 Years

soil-collection.jpgThis weekend marked the centenary of the lynching of Will Brown outside the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha. There were a number of events and memorial services to mark the occasion, including a gathering and soil collection ceremony outside the courthouse yesterday morning. (The soil collected from the site will be on display in Montgomery, Ala. at the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice.) It was an emotional morning on many levels. Standing in that spot, my mind wandered while the politicians spoke and played back over the events. It has been a few years since I walked around the grounds and imagined what it would have been like to be there during the riot. The morning was also a culmination of the work of so many people in Omaha over the past seventeen months to bring together the community for a commemoration like this in a meaningful way. So it was heartening to see that labor bear fruit and to have the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation be at center stage.

As part of this effort, at the invitation of the Kingfisher Institute, I delivered a lecture earlier this month at Creighton University that focused on some of the reasons why I wrote Kings of Broken Things, how I came to see myself in relation to the book, and why the story is told from the perspective of bystanders, rather than, perhaps, Will Brown himself or other victims of the violence. If you’d like to watch a recording of the presentation, you can here, with the action starting around 55 minutes the recording of the livestream. Alternatively, I’ll paste below an essay version of the presentation.

I’ve been at a loss for how I should personally observe this dark anniversary. Hopefully this will suffice.

On Whiteness and an Omaha Race Riot: 100 Years Later, a Writer Reflects on the Lynching of Will Brown

A long section of my novel Kings of Broken Things describes a race riot in World War I Omaha and the subsequent lynching of Will Brown, a 40-year-old black man who’d been dubiously accused of raping a white woman. It’s troubling material, to say the least, and how the country has changed (or failed to change) since I started working on the book a decade ago makes the history even more troubling. Focusing solely on Omaha—where major riots haven’t erupted in decades—violence and segregation remain endemic. These are difficult things to talk about in mixed company and, as it relates to the relevant history, many here would rather forget the bad times. During the first few weeks after publication, online comments questioned why I was “stirring up trouble” by revisiting the riot, and some expressed opinions similar to a Facebook user who addressed a post about the riot by saying, “History like this is hidden for a reason.”

It’s an important question to ask ourselves, if we agree that history should be hidden—or if we think that acknowledging our history is an important part of reconciling with racial violence in Omaha. Generally, I side with the famous William Faulkner line from his novel Requiem for a Nun—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—but, honestly, it’s a little murky even to me why I worked so stubbornly to finish and publish this particular novel. I’m not a native to Omaha and have no family connection to what happened here a hundred years ago. I could have largely shrugged off the troubles detailed in Kings of Broken Things if I wanted, as many do; it’s generally easy enough for white Midwest Americans like me to walk away from what can be seen as other people’s problems.

To a certain degree, I did turn away. I saw myself as a bystander: that I never meant harm to anyone and was therefore pardonable. Yet throughout the process—writing the book, researching the lynching of Will Brown—it became impossible to ignore the complicity that bystanders like me have in the violence that yet plagues our nation.

An estimated 15,000 people participated to some degree in the Omaha Race Riot of 1919. That is to say, a colossal mob of white people took over a city that was then one of the largest west of the Mississippi River in order to murder an innocent black man in retribution for a crime that likely didn’t even occur. In the process, the Douglas County courthouse was nearly destroyed, along with the rest of downtown, and Omaha’s reform mayor was also hanged when he attempted to disperse the mob, though he was cut down and would survive. Will Brown was a 40-year-old itinerant laborer who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. There isn’t much known about Brown beyond his connection to these crimes, except that he came to Omaha from Cairo, Ill., and was a “hunchback” and physically disabled. He lived in the same house with another black man and a white woman—a fact that was principal in his being accused of raping a white teenager that September. There had been dozens of white women raped earlier that summer—mostly by white men in blackface who were part of a criminal organization run by Tom Dennison that was undermining that new reform mayor by whipping the public into hysteria about “black criminality”—so after Will Brown was identified to police by the alleged victim, an angry mob nearly lynched him on the site. Though he was whisked to the courthouse without being harmed that evening, two days later, on Sunday, September 28, 1919, Will Brown would be lynched in downtown Omaha without ever being arraigned on charges.

Many of these events happened in places I walked by every day for the near-decade it took me to finish the book. (I work as a reporter at the courthouse where the riot occurred.) And once I knew that a man had been lynched and hung from a light pole on a particular corner, it was impossible to not wonder about that each time I was on the spot. Not only what happened there (what it would have sounded like, what it would have felt like to be in that crush of fanatical anger) but also the eerie experience of standing in that space a hundred years later. Knowing the history of a place can haunt you, much as that very place can be haunted.

My first writing professor, the prodigious novelist Jonis Agee, often talked about what she called “the psychosis of the land”: how trauma was experienced in most all places on the prairie, and even if you no longer see the direct effect of that trauma, it has left a mark. So I wondered what it meant that a man was lynched on the spot where now there’s a crosswalk I use to get to work, that the light post he was hung from has been replaced several times since then, but that there’s still a light post. Particularly as time passed, writing this book, as the destruction of black bodies again became a generational dilemma for our society, as we learned names like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many others, how could you not wonder about what kind of nation we are, what kind of people we are, that this keeps happening?

In some ways, writing about the Omaha Race Riot was a matter of craft—incorporating primary historical sources in order to portray the riot as horrific in fiction as it was in real life—but there was some personal involved too, of course. In this case, I had to put myself in a mindset to depict the mob, to get inside the psyche of a person who would shoot at a hanged man until he was disemboweled, while also imagining what Will Brown might have had running through his mind as his hours dwindled. In the progression of the riot, I think this dehumanization comes out in excerpts like these:

1. Everybody had a theory about how these things happened, especially later, when a mob caught one, a black man who did bad things to a girl. They would wonder about it in Omaha for years after the fact. What went through his mind? What was he thinking when the cops handed him over? This one they caught, this Will Brown. They’d wonder if his ears worked, if he was able to hear what that mob promised to do to him. They’d never know. No more than fifty people had even heard of him the day he was arrested, but the day after, Will Brown’s name was on the lips of every person in Omaha, after what that girl said he did to her.

2. They got Will Brown. The raiders. Karel was there. He reached up at Will Brown but couldn’t touch him. Men had taken over again, their arms longer than Karel’s, their hips heavier when he tried to move them. Karel stretched but couldn’t reach—all at once Will Brown fell, and it was Karel’s hands that tried to catch the weight of the man and pass it off. But Karel couldn’t hold. The weight crashed through him, crumpled him into a corner. Will Brown on top. Karel saw Will Brown’s eyes as the raiders grabbed and lifted him and carried on. Will Brown’s white eyes popping out of his skull. Raiders lifted Karel to his feet, but Karel’s legs didn’t work. His legs and hands were numb where he touched the black. He flattened against the wall to watch raiders tear off down the stairs. He couldn’t follow. They held Will Brown out a window. They ripped his clothes off. They had him.

Both the causes and effects of the lynching of Will Brown remain with the community. In many ways, the old ghetto boundary lines codified by Red Lining and other racist governmental policies still segregate society. And though the city and its suburbs consistently rank among the best places to live and raise a family, and the area is praised for its suburban public schools and low unemployment rate, these features aren’t enjoyed equally. While this situation is not uncommon nationally, the gulf in Omaha is wider than most anywhere else.

In a recent series on change in the African-American community over the last decade, the Omaha World-Herald interviewed a prominent community activist, Willie Barney, who described his experience coming to the city like this:

At first he and his wife, Yolanda Barney, saw Omaha as ‘a gold mine,’ with low unemployment, strong public schools and a vibrant downtown. But where were all the black people? Not leading corporations. Not very prevalent in civic leadership. Not even present in his neighborhood […] As he looked more closely at the city, he began to see what had been hidden. Omaha might have a low jobless rate overall, but black unemployment was in the double digits. The public housing projects didn’t look as bad as in other cities, but the poverty was deep. Plus the geographic separation was stark. (OWH, 8/9/17)

While the city touted revitalization and economic success, the homicide victimization rate for African-Americans in Nebraska was highest in the nation for several years, and twice the national average, which led to Omaha being tabbed three times in this decade as the most dangerous place in America to be black. The numbers suggest how different life still is across races here.

I moved to Omaha around the same time as the Barneys and noticed many of the same things, if in a more general, clueless-white-guy kind of way. Coming of age in Lincoln, there was a persistent sense that Omaha was an outlier in Nebraska, and not in a good way. The capitol city is part of the state-at-large—a bigger actor in pioneer history, home to the state’s beloved Cornhusker football team and flagship university—yet, across the divide, broad swaths of Omaha aren’t party to the Nebraska I grew up knowing. Omaha’s urban struggles and shootings were as far away from the cul-de-sacs of my childhood as those we saw fuel the L.A. riots in 1992. What I did hear about Omaha, the parts inside the byways, communicated a consistent message: look away.

Though the lynching of Will Brown is the most explosive incident of race violence in Nebraska, it isn’t talked about all that much and has been treated very much like settled history. More palpable are a series of riots, lootings, and fire-bombings that began in 1966 and devastated the Near North neighborhoods. These riots peaked in the summer of 1969 when black, fourteen-year-old Vivian Strong was shot in the back and killed by a policeman near the projects where she lived. This is a familiar story, how riots broke out after Vivian Strong was killed. Red-lining was in full effect by then and the construction of the North Freeway in the 70s would further segregate the peoples and economies of Omaha—but the way I’d always heard it growing up was that members of the black community had destroyed north Omaha during the riots and that its prolonged depression is therefore the mess of the black community to clean up, regardless of why the riots started, regardless of anything, really. Punitive sentiments likes this have not exactly left us either.

Whoever owns the legacy in this political sense, it’s true that such unleashed anger and destruction sealed a certain fate for many neighborhoods. And, as like everywhere, suburban flight showed who could walk away and who could not.

When I moved to Omaha after college, in 2005, my fiancée and I ended up in a diverse low-rent neighborhood in midtown, one that was pretty rough around the edges. Like many in our generation, we were trying to reverse suburban flight, if for no other reason than we didn’t want to live in the middle of a parking lot. Those days, there was quite a bit of violence on our block—a friend mugged, a few acquaintances jumped outside bars, two ex-cons across the street who fought drunkenly with baseball bats—though most of what made the papers was related to drug deals gone bad and, really, I never felt all that unsafe. I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t talk shit, so why should I worry?

I was right about that. We were just starting out, my fiancée-then-wife and I. That’s how the prevailing narrative for folks like us goes here—not exactly rags to riches, but along those lines. Soon after marrying we had our first kid, bought our first house, got our first good jobs, had another kid, bought a better house in a better neighborhood that has better schools. More or less how it’s supposed to go. We didn’t stay in the low-rent neighborhood much longer than we had to, because, honestly, the calculus changed and we were mobile. Why wouldn’t we move twenty blocks west if it made life easier? We weren’t fleeing, we were recalibrating.

The toughest question I struggled with while writing Kings was why I was the person who should write this book. There was a little voice inside my head that told me to be quiet. In truth, although it’s much too late to turn back now, I’m still not so sure that I was the right person. The instinct is to hold tightly to the good things I have in life and forget the rest. However, as I was writing the novel, I struggled with appropriation issues and finding the best perspective to tell the story, there was another little voice that told me I couldn’t use my position or race as a way to get out of writing about these issues; or, for that matter, contemplating how ethnicity and whiteness have been elemental forces in the development of Omaha. Failure was always an option, of course, but I had to try my best to write and publish this novel, so I didn’t feel like I’d copped-out when given an opportunity to do good work. For me, Kings was always about reaching—to understand ideas bigger than me… to compose a novel beyond my abilities… to write a story that’s more than the sum of my fears, misconceptions, and prejudices, these things that comprise the worst face for all of us. There are lots of reasons to write, the most tangible for me has always been the process of creating something from myself that’s better than myself. This, and I believed that someone could tell about the lynching of Will Brown in a way that would draw more attention to the story than straight history. On my good days, I believed that I could be that person.

Even at the start, armed with this high-mindedness, I wanted to use certain immigrant narratives and the shaky status of German-Americans during World War I to set up what I knew was coming at the end of the novel. (German immigration and the settlement of the West is a big part of my family’s legends, as you might suspect.) The literal placement of whiteness in the riot was a key part of this strategy, insofar as the riot had to involve diverse notions of whiteness. Not only belligerent working class louts who storm the courthouse, but also reviled hyphenated German-Americans eager to improve their station, political movers-and-shakers who wield prejudice to get what they want, and, just as important, a bunch of pleasant folks who are there to be nice to their neighbors, who desire little except to remain pleasant. Those Nebraskans who want to live on the fringes, just out of reach of the troubles of other folks. Bystanders, like me.

Yet, in the early drafts, no main characters were actively involved in the riot. I worried a lot about making my characters likable, at least those who were precious to me, who resembled me, but the novel was flat, written this way, particularly because I didn’t want to implicate my “good” characters in such an evil act by even having them inside the courthouse, much as I wouldn’t want to implicate myself. The novel only really began to make sense after I transformed teenage baseball prodigy Karel Miihlstein into an active participant in the riot and let him find his way to the spot where Will Brown is seized by the lynch mob.

After letting Karel evolve into a fallible being, his emotional darkness and struggle to be accepted by others became organizing principles. By making Karel a courthouse raider, this was no longer disembodied whiteness that merely observed evil acts. Karel was there, he touched Will Brown. (But Karel couldn’t hold. The weight crashed through him, crumpled him into a corner. Will Brown on top. Karel saw Will Brown’s eyes…) It took me a long time to willingly go to this place with one of my precious characters. Of course, from the beginning, none of the characters in Kings of Broken Things were ever clean. There was no purity to protect.

During those specific months of revision, I found myself more and more interested in the group of boys who surround Karel in his working class neighborhood and come together because of their love of baseball. Because of this, Kings of Broken Things spends a lot of time reveling in the hijinks of young white men. Petty theft, brawling, sneaking into bars, trying to catch a glimpse of a girl’s pubic hair, barging into neighborhoods where black people live and returning to “tell the tale.” Traditional good-old-boy lore. Of course, I too went through similar initiation as a young man—the vastly more restrained 1990s Lincoln version—and what I remember most are the times we should have got in trouble for whatever we were up to, but we were almost always let off the hook. The argument in favor of this cycle is that we were shitheads once, sure, but we grew up, we’re balanced and successful men now, so what’s in the past no longer matters.

Around when the final draft was nearly done, in February 2015, I was talking with a friend from those salad days. He asked, “Do you think we would have been part of the riot if we were teenagers then?” At first we both said, “No, not ever.” But given a moment, we admitted that we would have been there. Not as raiders who snatched Will Brown, but amidst the teens who took advantage of the chaos to smash out a window in the courthouse and slur police without consequences. Of course we would have been there. We’d have nothing to lose. Not in a physical sense, not in terms of our freedom.

It makes me sick sometimes to think about all the things my friends and I got away with, not because our misadventures were so terrible, but because not every young man in this country gets to walk away from petty crime.

I’d never thought to use Kings of Broken Things as a way to vindicate anyone for what happened—the lynching of Will Brown was an irredeemable act—but even for those who weren’t perpetrators, even for bystanders, there is a degree of complicity. From walking away, from looking away. I couldn’t have written this novel without appreciating that. In my author’s note I mention that I consider this novel an “act of remembering,” which is to say it’s a call for ownership of that history, and in a similar, maybe more important way, it’s also an act of seeing where we live, who we are, and who we live with.

 

 

A Few Updates, Plus Photos from the Durham Museum

SAMSUNG CSCHey, 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.

Rave Review in KC Star!

KC Star ReviewI’m so stoked about this rave review that appeared in the Kansas City Star a couple weekends ago!

You should read the whole thing yourself, but these are especially encouraging:

“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.”

Really, it’s a very knowledgeable review and I’m grateful that Omaha-native Christine Pivovar was able to chime in. Getting some press in my second-favorite city isn’t so bad either!

Red Summer Revisited in Omaha World-Herald

riotlead_hTnAvzbIn case you missed it on Sunday, the Omaha World-Herald had a huge feature on my book Kings of Broken Things and the history of the summer of 1919 here in Omaha that serves as the backbone of the novel.

It’s really a great portrait of those months that led up to the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 and lynching of Will Brown, from the labor struggles and use of scab labor to a spike in the cost-of-living to the political intrigue and machinations of boss Tom Dennison to the migration of African-Americans to Omaha.

Honestly, it was a great relief to see that my research lined-up with theirs on all these important factors. (I’d feared that when this day came and the article came out that it would focus on how much I’d messed up the details–this the showing-up-to-the-first-day-of-class-only-in-underwear nightmare for a historical novelist.) Anyway, it was heartening to see that all my fears and attention to detail paid off.

owh archives

Thanks so much to Micah Mertes and OWH for running the feature and for all the work they put in to bring attention to this important part of Omaha, Nebraska, and national history.

Here’s a taste of the article:

Many years later, Wheeler worked as a reporter for Courthouse News Service, the job bringing him to the Douglas County Courthouse several times a week. Repeatedly at the scene of one of Omaha’s most shameful acts, Wheeler once again became fascinated with the story of the 1919 riots.His fascination led to his newly released debut novel, “Kings of Broken Things.”
The book, which took Wheeler seven years to write, takes place in Omaha during and before the “Red Summer of 1919,” tracking three key characters in the tense days prior to the riot.
“It really was a powder keg,” Wheeler said. “The riot itself was completely irrational, but the fact that it happened was somewhat logical based on everything else that happened.”
“Everything else” included union strikes and economic hardship, migrations of blacks from the South to Omaha, yellow journalism that stoked the flames of racial resentment and a corrupt political machine led by Tom Dennison, who would stop at nothing to discredit Mayor Smith and his reformist government.
It was an era rife with drama, and it now serves as a compelling backdrop for a novel.

 

Omaha’s Underground City

Photo by Kent Sievers.

The Omaha World-Herald ran an interesting piece this week with Erin Golden’s “Life beneath the street: Downtown sidewalks conceal a hidden world underground.” The article details the condition and current use (or non-use) of several giant vaults that remain under the streets and sidewalks of downtown Omaha.

Per the article:

Some of the below-ground history is clear. The vaults were used for storing coal and merchandise, which could be dropped in through chutes or lowered through metal trap doors built into the sidewalks.

But there are other possibilities, too. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, spaces like Hawkins’ were directly below the heart of an area known as the Sporting District, where a crime boss ran bootlegging and prostitution operations.

My novel contains several pivotal scenes in tunnels under the city–the crime boss ones–so this is pretty interesting to me. From what I’ve read, I don’t think vaults like the one pictured had much to do with criminal operations. Pimps and bootleggers were more concerned with secrecy and transportation, less so with storage, so narrow tunnels were favorable. As is fictionalized in my book, tunnels were used to connect hotels with brothels, so patrons could move discretely without being scene walking in the front door of the house where they took their pleasure. Several of Tom Dennison’s offices and saloons he ran were rumored to feature tunnels as well, to facilitate a quick get-away if necessary.

Society as a whole seemed to be obsessed with tunnels and secret underground vaults those days. Many people had them dug under their yards, to their garages, elsewhere. Big retail stores like the Brandeis had tunnels that connected from the bargain basement level to nearby banks–so customers didn’t have to go out into the weather should they need to make a withdrawal. “Tunneler” was a pretty common professional during these times too. As a dangerous job that demanded skill, I’m sure it paid well.

Thinking of this reminds me of the scenes in The Jungle when Jurgis Rudkus joins the project to dig the Chicago subway. Or, more recently, Colum McCann’s captivating portrayal of the sandhogs who tunneled under the East River to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn by rail in This Side of Brightness, my favorite McCann novel.

At any rate, I’m pretty jealous of Phil Hawkins, the artist whose kept a studio in one of these vaults the past few years. Not that I’d want to give up my cozy home office or anything, but that’s awesome.

Tom Dennison Scholar, Orville Menard Dies

I wanted to note the passing of Orville Menard. For long-time readers of the blog, Menard’s name should be a familiar one. I’ve mentioned his work on Tom Dennison and the history of political bossism in Omaha many times in this space, as its been a crucial source in researching my novel. I’m very thankful for his wide adnd varied contributions on the subject and was saddened by the news.

His book on Dennison–River City Empire: Tom Dennison’s Omaha–was just reissued last November by Bison Books.

The Omaha World-Herald ran this profile of Menard last week, detailing Menard’s career as an academic, writer, family man, and mentor of, among others, Chuck Hagel.

Autumn in Review (2013)

No big news regarding the novel-writing at this point. I’ve been busy reworking the reworks. Tried half a dozen more ways to do the opening pages and feel like I’m getting closer on that. For a long time I leaned on having a sort of prologue opening, but decided to cut all but four pages of that, as it seemed to be more of a crutch for me as writer than anything that might interest a reader. Always a tricky business figuring out what actually needs to be on the page and what needed to be written for the writer only. Getting closer though.

There was some more tangible news related to The Uninitiated over the season though, as Boulevard published an excerpt of the novel in October, titled “River Ward, 1917.” This is the first bit of writing from the novel that’s been published, so definitely exciting news there.

Meanwhile, in December, another excerpt, “On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown,” brought home the Marianne Russo Award from the Key West Literary Seminar. Among the many benefits are free travel and lodging at this year’s seminar, the opportunity to read my work as part of the regular program at the seminar, and an 11-day stay in Key West. It will be sad to miss over a third of Nebraska’s January, but somehow I’ll soldier through.

These two things, along with a fellowship to Akademie Schloss Solitude, winning the Tarcher/Penguin Top Artist contest, a long-list notice in the Inkubate novel contest–all of which was based on work done for The Uninitiated–makes me hope I’m on the right track here.

There was more publishing news in November, as Five Chapters accepted “Impertinent, Triumphant” for publication. The story will run sometime in March, probably. Really looking forward to that too.

Also, some interesting thoughts on living abroad are offered here in this article.

Finally, congrats to emily m. danforth and her novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post for taking the “Woman Writer” award at the High Plains Book Awards. So happy for emily and all of her success.

Dispatch from The Uninitiated

“Tom thought it over as he paced the brick drive that led up to his house, two days after the vote. Bullet straight and tree-lined, the drive gave the impression of something fantastic as his house slipped into view, large and unreachable, a mirage. The house was wood-framed with finishes of granite at certain edges, the cellar and foundation limestone, highlights of plaster festoons above the front door. A few chimneys rose above beveled eaves. Off the second floor bedrooms were balconies as wide as the patios below, where a tiered-garden overlooked the industrial valley. There were pergolas holding grape vines, arbors abloom with creeping red ivy. Everything here was made for entertaining, for looking at, for admiring, but up close these spaces didn’t serve any purpose. This was an unpeopled luxury, a lonely glutton of riches in and of itself. If Tom was being honest, he had to admit this.

“Years before, an enemy left a bomb on the front doorstep. An ingenious design, the bomb, a simple wooden box with six sticks of dynamite and a pistol inside. A string was tacked to the porch and connected to the trigger of the pistol. If someone had lifted the box, his wife Ada or daughter Frances, the whole house would have been blasted clean off the earth, leaving only a rubbled crater. Frances found the box with a friend, and she told Tom about it. A smart girl, Frances didn’t touch the infernal device at all. Tom noticed the trip wire when she brought him to see. He had police dismantle the bomb. After that Tom closed the grounds. Bodyguards were kept outside around the clock. You had to be a close family friend, a known friend, if there was such a thing, or else you couldn’t get in. The bomb changed things. That’s when Tom put the machine gun across his lap in the car. That’s when everything here, all this bounty he’d won over the years, all of it, started being lonely.”

Just Finished

The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos. I’d always avoided the USA Trilogy for some reason. Dos Passos is so often only a foot-note to Hemingway among the great writers of the Lost Generation, although his novels are consistently lauded and canonized as well. I’d just never known anyone who actually read him, so there wasn’t much of a conversation to join, I guess. After reading this first third of the trilogy I can see why Dos Passos is still relevant. So much of his pro-labor and socialist message is probably lost to most contemporary readers–it’s similar to reading The Jungle at times–but the level of energy and innovation is very high here too. Very rich, poetic, and affecting.

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. The way these conversational essays seem to be written more for effect–that your mind wanders with the flow of information, sometimes parallel to it, sometimes not–produces an interesting reading experience. I’d read about Sebald’s work a lot before I ever read it, so I kind of knew what to expect. At the same time, I’m still not really sure what to think.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen. Really enjoyed this. A lot more than I thought I would, frankly. I met Ron when he visited Creighton University this fall, which is what prompted me to finally pull this off my “To Read” book shelf. The psychological depth of the novel is pretty astounding. Plenty of shoot-outs and train robberies too, of course.

The Castle by Franz Kafka. A monster of an unfinished novel. I was compelled to read this after watching Michael Haneke’s film adaptation, and really enjoyed both quite a lot. The idea of reading an unfinished novel always intrigues me, particularly ones of this class that could just as accurately be called “unfinishable” novels. It isn’t so much that the plot line is incomplete, more that the story could never finish. It’s not like K.’s going to find some sort of victory in the end, or defeat for that matter. The novel follows his string of embarrassments and slight advancements and eventually stops as he reaches the end of his inertia. I kind of wondered if the novel wasn’t finished after all.

Hide Island by Richard Burgin. A review I wrote of this collection of short stories will be appearing in Prairie Schooner‘s Briefly Noted online book review, probably in February.

Now Reading

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. This has been pretty engaging so far, although the writing sometimes comes off as haphazard, particularly when it comes to POV. Maybe haphazard isn’t the right word, superfluous?, but I often question some of the strategies Marra uses here to tell the story. A good book nonetheless. I can certainly see why it made so many Best of lists this year, mostly because of the story of an orphaned little girl and two eccentric doctors in war-torn Chechnya is so remarkable.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. I’ve been reading this off and on for a few years now. I come across some criticism about Dreiser a while ago that lumped him into a group of American novelists who have novels regarded as classics (Dreiser has two, of course, with Sister Carrie also showing impressive staying power) even though the writing itself isn’t really all that remarkable. I’d tend to agree with the assessment. Nobody is going to confuse Dreiser with Hemingway or Fitzgerald, as far as style and form go, although the story of his novels really is so quintessentially American (for its time, place, and class) that it’s hard to dispute the status of his novels as classics. Steinbeck was the other novelists lumped into this category, which seems to fit as well.

Up Next

The Third Book about Achim by Uwe Johnson. The follow-up novel to Speculations about Jakob. These books can be difficult to locate, but I happened to find one at the always excellent Jackson Street Booksellers and was lucky enough to get the other from Nicole for Christmas.

Hansen Writes on Tom Dennison for the Omaha World-Herald

dennisonSome more Tom Dennison content to share, as Matthew Hansen’s column in yesterday’s Omaha World-Herald gives an overview of Dennison’s forty year career as political boss in Omaha. The column focuses on the 1932 Prohibition trial of Tom and his associates, and features a few quotes from Dennison expert Orville Menard, whose book River City Empire was recently reissued.

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While the article doesn’t really offer a whole lot of new information, it’s certainly worth a read. Here’s a highlight:

Tom Dennison, the dapper Irishman who strode to the witness box in November 1932, had for all intents and purposes run Omaha for nearly four decades. He had never been mayor, and, in fact, he never ran for political office. Instead, he got mayors, city councilmen, judges and even congressmen elected — or defeated — based on how willing they were to bend to his will. Neither was Dennison a reputable big-business man, the equivalent of a modern-day Fortune 500 CEO. It’s a tad difficult to fit in with the black-tie crowd when you are dogged by accusations that you had murdered rivals, robbed trains and become the Capone of the Cornhusker State. Not that the man on the witness stand was hurting for cash. He moved rivers of liquor during Prohibition, ran several wildly profitable illegal casinos, controlled and profited from the city’s 2,500 prostitutes and collected cash from every business — both reputable and underworld — that needed his protection. He also tampered with juries, stuffed ballot boxes, bought off the Omaha police, installed relatives and cronies into made-up city jobs, allegedly ordered the murder of one of Omaha’s biggest businessmen and may have purposely inflamed the racial tension that led to the 1919 race riot and lynching of a black man. A Chamber of Commerce stalwart he was not. But Tom Dennison was something else. He was untouchable.

From the sounds of things, Hansen will be devoting more of his column space to Tom Dennison in the future–the gangland murder of Harry Lapidus in particular–so that’s something to look forward to. Hansen has really done a great job since taking over as a columnist earlier this year. Some of his stuff has been pretty compelling, in both goof-ball and more touching ways, so I’m excited he’s turned his attention to this era of Omaha history.

Tom Dennison Exhibit & River City Empire

Nicole and I were in Portland last week–so I missed this–but a friend of the blog let me know about a couple recent Tom Dennison news items. First, a new permanent exhibit opened last week at the Roman L. Hruska Federal Courthouse in downtown Omaha that relates the intrigue surrounding the 1932 trial of Tom Dennison, and fifty-eight other members of his syndicate, for alleged Prohibition violations. The exhibit touts this landmark trial as it “brought national attention to the methods used by criminal syndicates of that era to promote bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, money-laundering, extortion, election fraud, jury-rigging, bribery, and political corruption.”

ORDER KINGS OF BROKEN THINGS, A NEW NOVEL ABOUT DENNISON-ERA OMAHA!

Although Tom Dennison was indicted and tried over the course of two months, the trial ended in a hung jury, and  Dennison would never be convicted. Still, this pretty much spelled the end of the Dennison machine. Tom suffered a stroke in early in 1932, and the damage from this was said to show visibly throughout the trial. Later in the year he came down with pneumonia, would be divorced from his teenage bride, and within two years of the trial’s end would be dead. Despite a few attempts to find an heir-apparent Dennison was never able to establish a line of succession and the machine fell apart once he wasn’t there to keep it running.

Pretty interesting stuff. KETV seems to have the story of record here about the exhibit.

Also of note is that Orville D. Menard has a new book coming out in early November from Bison Books. Menard’s Political Bossism in Mid-America, essentially a biography of Tom Dennison that was first published in 1989, is the go-to authority on all matters Dennison. His new book, River City Empire, appears to be a reissue of his previous work, particularly since the page counts only differ by ten, and a foreword has been added. In any event, Menard has mentioned in talks before that he’s still been working on the material since his first came out, so I’m interested to check out the new book. More than anything it’s great to see renewed interest in this fascinating figure of Omaha history–one who just happens to be a main character in my novel!