In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Hear below–me reading from my new chapbook On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brownon the Platte River Sampler radio show (KZUM, 89.3 in Lincoln, Nebraska) and being interviewed by host Phil Schupbach. This was a lot of fun and turned out pretty well, I’d say. Thanks so much to Phil and KZUM for having me.
A few updates on events surrounding the release of my chapbook (On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown) and some info on how to obtain a copy for yourself, if you’re so inclined:
– The e-book version is available right now on Amazon for the bargain price of 99 cents. If you’re a Kindle user, check it out here.
– I’ve confirmed that the paper pamphlet version will be sold through the online store of Edition Solitude–which you can find here. Well, you can’t find it there now–unless you’re reading this in the future–but it will be there soon. Probably in March.
– Promotional materials are starting to come out for the “Quotes & Appropriation” event Darren Keen and I (and many others) will be a part of at Akademie Schloss Solitude later this month. There’s more information on the event here and here and here, if you’re interested. Here’s the flyer for the event.
– A chapbook release party has been organized, and the good news is you’re all invited! The other good news is that I talked Darren into stopping by Omaha on his way to SXSW, so we’ll have our entire reading/music/film/photography presentation ready to share to a local audience too, which is important. Join us on Wednesday, March 11, at Pageturners Lounge (5004 Dodge Street/Omaha). Here’s a link to the Facebook event page, with all the details. This will be the easiest way to obtain a copy of the paper version if you’re in the Omaha-area, as we’ll have copies for sale at the event, with all proceeds benefiting the Urban League of Nebraska.
Here’s the cover image for my forthcoming chapbook (“On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown”) that will be published by Reihe Projektiv/Edition Solitude later this winter, in late February, to be exact.
This will be the first writing I’ve had published about the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 and the lynching of Will Brown at the Douglas County Courthouse. I’ve posted here many times on the subject, one I’ve been researching and writing fiction about for over five years now. I’m both excited and nervous to finally be sharing this work with audiences. Hopefully it’s found to be pertinent and well-considered work.
The chapbook will be released in conjunction with my upcoming presentation at Akademie Schloss Solitude as part of their two-day, cross-discipline workshop titled “Quotes and Appropriation.” DJ Darren Keen and I have been hard at work on our opening night event that will feature readings from the chapbook and a DJ set from a melange of music that was important to the writing of the chapbook, plus a presentation of photographs and film from my research. It will be a good time.
If you heard me read at the Key West Literary Seminar in January, Solitude Nacht in July, or in December at the Fair Use Reading Series in Benson, this is some of the same material. It includes what I read then and quite a bit more.
If you’re interested in acquiring a copy of the book, the best way would be to just stop in at Akademie Schloss Solitude in February and pick up a copy at the event. If Stuttgart is a little far afield, other options will be available thereafter, hopefully in both hardcopy and digital editions. More on that to come.
Many thanks to Todd Seabrook (editor/designer with The Cupboard) for his work on the cover and book design. He’s great. If you’re looking for someone to work with on a chapbook project, he’s your guy.