At the Mercy of the Mob: Theodore Wheeler’s Kings of Broken Things

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I get sleepy when I hear people say they don’t read fiction because they prefer a book that can teach them something. In addition to being narrow-minded, these people also wrongly assume that the truth only comes in fact-based form. But just as bad nonfiction can be written to tell a lie, good fiction can be written to tell the truth. For these cynics with an aversion to fiction, Kings of Broken Things might be their entry point into an artform that uses make-believe to tell deeper truths than what the facts themselves report.

The historical novel, set in Omaha, Nebraska at the end of World War I, is written with a reporter’s steady hand and attention to detail. Its author, Theodore Wheeler, works as a civil law and politics reporter in Omaha, and his meticulous research shines in a book that blends fact with fiction to create a fresh perspective on the darkest chapter in the city’s history.

Kings of Broken Things is a story told through the eyes of three characters searching for an identity in a city under duress. Omaha in the late 1910s is a cauldron of social tensions: in the aftermath of World War I, war veterans have returned home to find black migrants employed where the veterans once were. Immigrants, including European refugees from the war, are flooding into Omaha’s neighborhoods. All the while, a corrupt political machine keeps turning its gears, doing whatever necessary to maintain its influence throughout the city—and to take back power where it has been lost.

At the intersection of these forces is eleven-year-old Karel Miihlstein, who arrives in Omaha’s Clandish neighborhood with his father and three sisters. The Miihlsteins came to America as refugees from Austria during the Great War and only recently moved to Omaha after struggling to get by in New York City. Karel is fortunate to find community through baseball, an unfamiliar sport at which he proves to be a natural. His path crosses with Jake Strauss, a twenty-year-old farm boy who moves to the big city and becomes a player in the city’s underworld of organized crime. Eventually, Jake falls in love with a kept woman named Evie Chambers, who is hard at work trying to stay off the streets while also dreaming of a place far from Omaha, somewhere she might be able to find a fresh start. As each character tries to find their way through life and the city, they are drawn closer to the center of tensions that will come to a head by the novel’s end.

Both the novel and its readers will be well-served by finding one another at this particular time in modern history, which continues its struggles with the political and social stressors on display in the book. Not every historical novel is as concerned with getting the facts right, but Wheeler has assigned his the moral responsibility of respecting the historical record. He doesn’t alter or gloss over the atrocities that take place in the book, especially toward the end of the story, when years of racial tension and political instability finally boil over. In his author’s note, he calls his book “an act of remembering,” and says that he “tried to stay true to the historical record when possible, particularly as this pertains to the character of real people.” It’s notable that nearly every Google search I conducted to the effect of “Did this happen in real life?” confirmed the accuracy of the book’s depictions of people, places, and events.

Among the historical figures most critical to the novel is the political boss Tom Dennison, a real-life mobster who enjoyed broad success manipulating Omaha’s political landscape from 1900 to the early 1930s. Dennison’s interest in politics was tied solely to his desire to protect his business interests, which in his early days were primarily comprised of roadhouses and gambling operations. Dennison was also a prominent bootlegger when Prohibition began in 1916. And where the historical record is disputed or unclear, Wheeler’s novel is unafraid to paint Dennison as the orchestrator of Omaha’s most famous race riot, laying out a trail of evidence that leads back to Dennison, who could leverage the riot to regain political influence he had recently lost.

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is its ability to build momentum and suspense. Wheeler achieves this immediately, with a prologue introducing the larger-than-life forces that will shape the course of the novel and its characters’ lives. We get a glimpse of where we’re headed: the vague threat of a mob that will do terrible things to a man named Will Brown. Whether or not you know the history of what happened at 17th and Dodge, Wheeler’s introduction is both ominous and terrifying. It uses one of the most vile lynchings in American history as the frame for a story that will reach its climax during the Red Summer of 1919, when race riots across the country resulted in hundreds of deaths, including dozens by lynching.

As the story’s main protagonists seek to build lives for themselves, their entanglements become more evident. Karel gets mixed up with a crowd of delinquents and finds himself forced to one side of the city’s racial divide, which is manifested in the city’s annual Interrace Baseball Game between an all-white team against all-black competition. Jake’s success working in the political machine becomes a burden when he wants to run off with Evie and is found out by Dennison. Wheeler’s writing seems to get better as the stakes and suspense ratchet up, culminating in a 10,000-strong riot outside the Douglas County courthouse, where a white crowd demands the body of a black man accused of raping a nineteen-year-old girl. 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.

We see characters get caught up in the madness and become a part of the evening’s horror. Then, just as quickly, they come down from their high and realize the role they played in the torture, lynching, and burning of a man who hadn’t had his day in court. These events are reported in the book as they might on the front page of the newspaper: Wheeler knows when to let the facts speak for themselves.

At times, Kings of Broken Things is a difficult book to read. It floods us with scenes of war-torn bodies and families, brutal lynchings, and political manipulation that does whatever it must to keep the party in power. It shows us how well-intentioned people can find themselves committing awful crimes and misdeeds before they realize what they’ve done. It asks us to look beyond the black-and-white of issues and see the gray in all of its complexity—and to remember our dark past, lest we forget its lessons.

Jonathan Crowl's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Guernica, Joyland, Day One, Necessary Fiction, Front Porch, the Prairie Schooner blog, and other publications. He lives in Minneapolis. More from this author →