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Debut novel of Creighton MFA alumnus examines race, politics, crime in early 20th century Omaha

In another time, Omaha, Nebraska, was less a staid Middlewestern burgh than it was a rippling, teeming rivertown, beset by ethnic and racial violence and governed by casual alliances between feckless politicians and underworld figures.

The place was ripe for an explosion. And, in 1919, a white mob touched it off by lynching a black man and setting his body afire in downtown Omaha.

The long fuse of that explosion provides the backdrop for Kings of Broken Things, the debut novel of Creighton alumnus Theodore Wheeler, MA’07, MFA’15. Wheeler’s book, published by Little A, landed on shelves Aug. 1 and is already generating a happy trawl of positive feedback, being named one of the 12 Must-Read Indie Books of the Summer by Barnes and Noble.

“It’s a good feeling,” said Wheeler, who will sign copies of the novel Sunday at 1 p.m. at Omaha’s Bookworm bookstore, 2501 S. 90th St. “I was a little nervous about it yesterday. It’s a little like your first job out of college. You’re not quite sure what to expect. But I’ve been given great support and encouragement from friends and family and other writers, including here at Creighton.”

Kings of Broken Things opens on an Omaha street scene a century ago in 1917, as the U.S. prepares to enter World War I, and chronicles the next two and a half years, as young men and women, black and white, immigrant and native, scramble for a piece of the American dream in the aftermath of that war. In quintessential American terms — from hard-fought baseball games to dirty electoral politics — the strivers find themselves drawn into events bigger than themselves, over which they have precious little control.

The action culminates in the September 1919 lynching, in the shadow of the Douglas County Courthouse, of Will Brown, a black man accused of raping a white woman.

In an America where racism and violence seem to have spurred new discussions and brought old, buried ones back to the surface, Wheeler — who was deep into the writing of the book when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015 — said his novel is published at a prescient moment.

“It is a perennial conversation,” he said. “I was writing when Michael Brown was killed and I was very much affected by that. Going back, we seem always to be having this discussion and it’s here again with Michael Brown, with Trayvon Martin. Looking back, there was always something happening.”

Wheeler said he hopes the book might nudge readers to consider their own complicity in violence and animosity, even — or maybe especially — from a bystander’s perspective.

“It is asking how injustice comes about,” Wheeler said. “In the case of Will Brown, justice tried to do its job, but the vigilante mob was too powerful. I didn’t try to take a pat stance, though. I think you react to the riot and the lynching as it is — an injustice, but how you think about your complicity, even without direct involvement, is what the larger question is. We all have some responsibility when things like that happen.”

Beyond the historical underpinnings, Wheeler also has a vibrant coming-of-age tale for a young immigrant in Omaha who stands witness to the city’s ugly growing pains. Karel Miihlstein’s prowess on the baseball diamond marks him for assimilation into the bubbling melting pot, even as he uneasily tenders a foot into the ethnic, sectarian and racial divides of his new home. Karel’s rich interiority sometimes makes him naďve, sometimes hypersensitive to the brutal world around him.

Two other voices, a young member of Omaha’s burgeoning criminal class, Jake Strauss, feels the push and pull of the underworld and the legitimate one, while Evie Chambers, a rich man’s kept plaything, struggles to declaim her purpose in the wider world.

“When I started, it was just that colorful story I wanted to tell,” Wheeler said. “That era in Omaha was so spectacular, so big. Marlon Brando and Fred Astaire were born here, other people were passing through. It was not yet this sleepy Midwestern town that people think of today. I wanted to capture what that would have been like for a farmboy from somewhere to come to Omaha and have his eyes opened. I was curious as to what that would look like.”

Kings of Broken Things comes out of seven years of research and writing, much of which Wheeler undertook in his two master’s programs at Creighton. He recounted hours poring over the Reinert Alumni Memorial Library’s newspaper archives and those of the Omaha Public Library, all while getting writing encouragement from his faculty mentors in the MFA program at Creighton.

Married with two children and a day job as a reporter covering Nebraska courts, Wheeler said the Creighton MFA met him where he was and allowed his writing to flourish in his situation. Wheeler has also published a chapbook — a portion of which appears in slightly different form in Kings of Broken Things — and a short story collection, Bad Faith, that appeared last year from Queen’s Ferry Press.

“Creighton really is like a family,” he said. “They really believe in nurturing not just the writing, but the whole person. I feel like I had a place where I could do this book the right way, with people who supported me and who believe that the writing life takes different forms.”

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