We’re starting a book club for Bluejays! (sign up today)
The Creighton Alumni Book Club is open to alumni and friends, as well as faculty and staff. It’s free and entirely online so you can join no matter where you are.
The club is not only a great way to stay well-read, with a new selection every two months; it also keeps you connected to your Creighton friends — a true-blue way for everyone to keep learning and growing together.
To celebrate the club’s first selection in August, Kings of Broken Things, we caught up with the book’s Creighton-connected author.
Theodore Wheeler, MA’08, MFA’15, is also the author of the short story collection Bad Faith and the upcoming novel In Our Other Lives (on sale March 2020).
He lives with his family in Omaha and works as a reporter for a legal news service and as an adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He’s also taught in Creighton’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.
To write his 2017 breakout book, Kings of Broken Things, Wheeler dove into the history of Omaha in the 1910s, in particular one of the worst moments in the city’s history: the 1919 race riot that culminated in the lynching of Will Brown, the burning of the courthouse and the attempted murder of Mayor Edward Smith.
Wheeler’s acclaimed book — which Kirkus Reviews called “an unsettling and insightful piece of historical fiction” — follows a group of characters living in an atmosphere of world war, political graft and racial resentment that led to a heinous act of mob violence.
The club’s first pick coincides with the efforts of Creighton’s newly formed Kingfisher Institute for the Liberal Arts and Professions to spark a campus-wide reading of Kings of Broken Things.
To inaugurate the study and work of the Kingfisher Institute, Creighton is engaging students, faculty, staff and the wider Omaha community in a closer look at the events of the 1919 riot and how they echo a century later. (Learn more.)
Kings of Broken Things will undoubtedly be a compelling read for most any reader. But for Creighton alumni familiar with Omaha, the book is essential — an eye-opening account of a horrific chapter in the city’s history, with parallels to the violence and social unrest of today.
Ahead of the book club’s start, we spoke with Wheeler about his novel, Omaha and the unique powers of historical fiction to bring the past back to life.
What are some of the things people want to know about your book after they read it?
Wheeler: The Red Summer of 1919 (a national phenomenon) and the annual interracial baseball game (a cringe-worthy Omaha tradition) pretty much always come up. Mostly readers want to know what I fictionalized in the novel, who played a role in the riot, and what really caused the riot and lynching to happen in the first place.
Kings features fictionalized portrayals of more than a few prominent figures in Omaha history— including machine boss Tom Dennison, gambler/panderer Billy Nesselhous, and prostitute-turned-reformer Josie Washburn, among them — along with some real events that took place during that era. Yes, Omaha had a “Kick the Kaiser” parade and there really was a melee at Rourke Park between white and African-American baseball players that began with a baseline collision.
A lot of readers, even those who grew up in the area, didn’t know much about why Will Brown was lynched outside the courthouse in 1919. Some didn’t even know that there was a lynching in Omaha. (There are officially two documented, by the way, with George Smith lynched in 1891.)
Many people thought that things like this only happened in Alabama or Georgia, never Nebraska. Hopefully, people reading Kings will consider how these events have affected what came later — why Omaha is set up the way it is geographically, why our schools are divided the way they are and how the events of September 1919 set into motion so much of what our city has become 100 years later. This happened in Omaha, too, and we have to face that.
You spent years doing research for this book so that you could give us an authentic depiction of this place and time and put us in the headspace of those who lived through it. That’s an entirely unique feature of historical fiction. Could you talk about the genre’s ability to transport a reader in ways that nonfiction perhaps cannot?
Wheeler: I remember in college we talked a lot about big-T truth and little-t truth, the difference between what is factual and what is philosophically or morally essential in a larger human sense. Sometimes fiction is better able to get at the big-T truth because fiction can get closer to characters and their interior lives in a way that straight history cannot, and hopefully get at their humanity in a more significant way.
Historical fiction gives you a different sense of what it was like to be a person in that time, and it’s closer to how we experience our own lives in our own time. One of the things I kept finding while doing research for Kings is that the Omaha of 100 years ago is pretty similar to the city we live in now. A majority of my research was done by reading old newspapers on microfilm, and I liked to read the Public Pulse letters The World-Herald published. For the most part, the concerns of citizens haven’t changed that much. Lack of parking, inconsiderate motorists, crooked politicians, flagging morals and family values, sure. But also violence motivated by racism, a surge of immigration from war-torn nations, and how to reform troubled kids.
Historical fiction can help you think about events from past times, sure, but it also helps put the current state of affairs into context.
What might Creighton alumni specifically be able to take from reading Kings of Broken Things?
Wheeler: Since Kings came out in 2017, I’ve done around 50 public events and have talked to a bunch of people about this history. My presentation has become more pointed over that time in that I ask more of those I speak to, and I hope that they take this piece of history personally.
Toward that end, over the last year, I’ve been helping the Kingfisher Institute and Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation to memorialize Will Brown, who was lynched on Sept. 28, 1919. The anniversary and commemoration give the city an occasion, and a responsibility, to be self-reflective about who we’ve been, who we are and who we want to be.
Especially for Creighton alumni, who are familiar with the Jesuit mission of social justice, the takeaway should be a consideration of some tough questions. How does Omaha reconcile with its past? How do we move forward? What does reconciliation mean to you in a personal way? Obviously, there are no simple answers. But I hope the book drives more people to ask themselves these questions.