When Tom Pendergast held sway over Kansas City, Omaha was being run by its own Boss Tom. From the early 1900s through the 1930s, Tom Dennison controlled Omaha’s city government, police force and courts, as well as its prostitution, gambling and bootlegging rings.
In 1918, Dennison’s machine lost the mayoral election. The following year, on Sept. 29, a race riot of thousands of people broke out, in which the new mayor was nearly hanged and a black man, Will Brown, was lynched.
Theodore Wheeler’s debut novel, “Kings of Broken Things,” recounts this tragedy and the circumstances leading up to it through the eyes of two young men, Jake Strauss and Karel Miihlstein.
Jake, a 20-year-old farm kid from northern Nebraska, moves to town and gets a job working for the Dennison machine, first digging tunnels and then giving stump speeches and fixing elections. Jake falls in — and falls in love with — Evie Chambers, a kept woman with secrets.
Karel, 11, shares a boarding house with Jake and his family, who have arrived in Omaha after fleeing the war in Austria. Hungry for acceptance and action, Karel becomes “one of the boys” through his talent on the ballfield and gets swept up in the whirlpool of conflicting ideologies and factions.
The Dennison machine’s gravitational pull on the neighborhood of brothels, saloons, immigrant tenements and industrial warehouses sucks all the main characters into its orbit one way or another.
Though the causes and details of the riot are still debated today, Wheeler places the blame strongly with Dennison. His men find boys off the street and encourage them to stir up trouble as a way of making the new mayor look weak and ineffective. One of Dennison’s men leads the charge of boys marching on the courthouse that day. Trucks of liquor fuel the frenzy, and the taxis run for free all day carrying anybody who wants to participate to the action.
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. Consider his rundown of the boys who initiate the riot: “Gangs of street kids in matching baggy suits and bowler hats, in felt caps and dark shirts dusted white with billiards’ chalk. High school kids from the Southside. Wide-shouldered Bohunks in denim pants. Football players in letter sweaters. Boys from the slaughterhouses with hands bleached white and shriveled from pickling tanks. Leather-skinned boys who prodded sheep and cattle all summer in dung-layered stockyards. Boys of all stripe and affiliation.”
The riot scenes, especially, are propulsive and harrowing. Just reading it can make you feel complicit in the violence. The personal stakes of the characters are less compelling in comparison. Conversations can leave a reader feeling like they didn’t quite catch what was going on. This may be a side effect of the narrative voice Wheeler has chosen.
The story is told by an omniscient narrator that speaks at times with the quiet, authoritative voice of a Ken Burns documentary. This style is well-suited to bringing the sweep of history to life but is perhaps too distant to effectively draw out emotion in intimate moments between two characters.
Thus, the book is more a portrait of a time and place than a story about these particular characters and their particular lives. And that’s a fine thing! The literary world needs books that show the Midwest is more than pioneers and cowboys, that tell the working-class, immigrant stories that shaped our cities.
It’s tempting, at this moment in time, to look at the Red Summer of 1919 as some kind of cautionary tale or revelation. And that’s certainly an option with this book. But literature is always stronger when it can make us feel something rather than teach us a lesson.
In his author’s note, Wheeler calls the book “an act of remembering.” 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.
“Kings of Broken Things,” by Theodore Wheeler (334 pages; Little A; $24.95, hardcover, $14.95, paperback)