Kings of Broken Things

Written by Theodore Wheeler
Review by Ellen Keith

Kings of Broken Things is set in Omaha, Nebraska, from the last years of the first World War in 1917 through the Red Summer of 1919. Wheeler focuses on three characters: Karel, an immigrant boy with a talent for baseball and trouble; Jake, a young man who works for Omaha’s political boss, Tom Dennison; and Evie, daughter of an African American woman but passing for white, who becomes Jake’s kept woman.

Wheeler’s protagonists aren’t very sympathetic, but I think that’s the point in this place and time. They’re all living a hardscrabble existence in Omaha. Karel lives with his three sisters and widower father in a boardinghouse. His father repairs musical instruments and is ineffective at curtailing his son’s activities. Jake got into trouble in his small town so fled to Omaha. A murder gets him in with Boss Dennison. If Evie wasn’t a kept woman, she’d be walking the streets. The wartime hardships inexorably build to the book’s climax in the summer of 1919, when the city is almost lit on fire during a mob lynching of an African American accused of raping a white woman. The heat and violence are vivid, and although almost one hundred years in the past, the political machinations that stirred up the mob and the racism feel all too contemporary right now.

I felt disquieted at the end of this book, in part I think because Karel, Jake, and Evie had done nothing to stem the violence, and Karel actually participated in it. There are no heroes because in extraordinary circumstances, many ordinary people will still do ordinary things. It’s a bleak conclusion, but a prescient one. Readers who like their fiction gritty and realistic will appreciate this book.