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August 2, 2017

Book Notes - Theodore Wheeler "Kings of Broken Things"

Kings of Broken Things

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Theodore Wheeler's debut novel Kings of Broken Things is a dark and mesmerizing account of Omaha's 1919 race riot.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Vivid and dynamic…[Kings of Broken Things] illuminates a savage moment in history and offers a timely comment on nationalism and racism. An unsettling and insightful piece of historical fiction."

In his own words, here is Theodore Wheeler's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Kings of Broken Things:

Kings of Broken Things is set in Omaha during the last days of World War I, bleeding into the Red Summer that followed, and addresses the biggest scar across the city's history—the courthouse lynching of Will Brown during the Omaha Race Riot of 1919. The story itself is told loosely from the perspective of the boys who grew up in an ethnic German neighborhood near where the riot occurred, so there's tension between an atmospheric historical view and the microscopic, lived-in experience of these boys, their families, and the people they lived near while growing up.

One of the most challenging parts in writing the novel was being able to hear what everyday life would have sounded like 100 years ago in their neighborhood—from traffic, arguments, and music, to things that went bump in the night, but especially the way people would have spoken to each other in a time and place that was both provincial and worldly at the same time, as Omaha was a city of immigrants situated in the middle of nowhere. As people who constantly have other voices at our fingertips, it's difficult to think how it would redirect a person's life to experience other voices at that time, especially since films were silent, there was no radio, and even music was still largely a performed medium rather than a recorded one at the end of the vaudeville and parlor music eras.

In recordings from the era (up through the Depression, really) that unrehearsed, raw, acoustic aspect of sound is very appealing to me, to the point that most of the contemporary bands I'm into reach for this sound of authenticity. More than anything, musically, this is probably the closest corollary with writing a novel that's set a century ago—that is, cultivating a voice that's both historical and modern, a sound that incorporates some of the machinery and phrasing of the day but is simultaneously new.

In this way, these songs contributed to fulfilling this tension of voice and are therefore part of Kings of Broken Things in different ways.

"Maple Leaf Rag" – Scott Joplin

I listened to this song a lot while writing the early parts of Kings of Broken Things, especially the saloon and barroom scenes, and life on downtown streets. The tempo of ragtime, how the notes race, rise, and fall over each other, "the chiming rises and descents of hothouse piano, the hectic jittering" as I describe it in the novel. I'd never connected with ragtime before, but it's interesting to hear the compositions now. At a local bar up the block from me, Dan McCarthy performs a weekly ragtime set on a dusty acoustic piano that's usually tucked away in a corner. It's such a cool experience to hear Joplin live, to be transported like that to a time, again, when most music, at least for the middle class, was experienced in printed form that was meant to be performed.

"In the Pines" – Lead Belly

Like many children of the '90s, my introduction to the music of Huddy Ledbetter came via the closing credits of Steve Martin's often-syndicated comedy classic The Jerk and then Nirvana's Unplugged album. Lead Belly's songs express the kind of hard-living sentiment that's embodied by many characters in Kings of Broken Things—transients, stockyard workers, folks who live in bottoms and backwaters. Before the Lomaxes and the Library of Congress brought attention to his work in the 1930s, Lead Belly himself served several prison sentences for weapon and manslaughter convictions—and he was, amazingly, twice pardoned after appealing via song to the governors of Texas and Louisiana. For my depiction of Will Brown (the victim of the lynching depicted in the novel) the connection was intruiging. Brown himself ran afoul of the law in Cairo, IL and reportedly came to Omaha to escape a judge's order that he marry a woman who was pregnant with his child. He worked in the stockyards and lived not far away, near the Missouri River. One of my favorite passages in Kings comes when the Germanic boy-narrators wonder who Brown was and what his life was like, looking back after the riot. It's the same kind of feeling for me listening to Lead Belly—a kind of speculation that comes when the intimacy of music is confronted by disparate experiences.

"Backwater Blues" — Bessie Smith

Along the same lines is this standard about a woman who has no place to go after her home is destroyed in a flood. A song about vulnerability with class overtones—"When it rains five days and the skies turn dark as night / Then trouble's taking place in the lowlands at night"—that is made even more poignant by the fact that Smith, one of the highest-earning entertainers of her day, was laid to rest in an unmarked grave after she died in a car accident in 1937. Her estranged husband pocketed money from multiple attempts to put up a marker, and it wasn't until 1970 that one paid in part by Janis Joplin was placed on her grave. Will Brown lay in an unmarked grave in a potter's field at Omaha's Forest Lawn cemetery for 90 years before a stone was purchased and placed there to note his presence.

"Black and Blue" — Louis Armstrong

Kings of Broken Things is peopled by many characters who come to Omaha for another chance while trying to hide who they are, from Evie Chambers passing as white, to Jake Strauss fleeing his family farm after brutally beating another young man, to the Miihlstein family finding their way to the Western Plains after being displaced from Central Europe, to Will Brown finding work in the stockyards. This was the beginning of the Great Migration, of course, when tens of thousands of African-Americans would come to Omaha looking for something better. As "Black and Blue" shows—"I can't hide what is on my face"—racial prejudice and violence was the great unequalizer among these exiles and refugees. Some of the characters in Kings are allowed to walk away after the riot and some are not.

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 18, I: Moderato – Sergei Rachmaninoff

A political exile himself—Rachmaninoff was Russian, of course, while the Miihlsteins are Austrian Jews who flee to America to escape the brutality of Russian Cossacks—this concerto, and opus in particular, speaks to the upheaval and dislocation, but also virtuosity and tradition, that evokes Central Europe in the 20th Century. These kinds of grand histrionics only really come off in classical music and opera, I think. Also, in the novel, Herr Miihlstein is a craftsman who builds and repairs stringed instruments. It's this that brings his family to Omaha, as he's recruited to fill a luthier position at the Omaha Musik Verein. Something about this piece and its history remind me of Herr Miihlstein, how Rachmaninoff held fast to overripe Romanticism in the face of all-erasing Modernism, as Miihlstein similarly holds to his fascinations and customs while his family is knocked around the globe. In addition to that, this concerto has long been one of my favorites. In college I bought a vinyl copy from a Salvation Army thrift store and have been hooked on it ever since—much to the chagrin of my then-girlfriend, now-wife.

"You Are What You Love" – Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins

I love how trite and true this song is. As with any love song, there's an element of loss and privilege necessary. The fight to maintain some amount of self-determination in the face of desire and circumstance is compelling. "You are what you love, not what loves you back." Maybe that's not self-determination. Anyway, it's an intoxicating song about self-delusion and the things we tell ourselves to get through tough times.

"An Der Weser" — Richard Tauber (Recordings 1922-1931)

There's a scene late in the book when two characters (a sickly girl, Anna Miihlstein, and her family's landlady, Maria Eigler) go to help an old immigrant woman who is dying. They arrive too late—but from across the hall there's staying an amateur touring choir from Bremen that's stranded in Omaha because of traveling restrictions placed on Germans. As a way of offering condolences, the group sings "An Der Weser," a nostalgic anthem of sorts. I'm not positive a liederkranz stuck in the US would have sung "An Der Weser" at that time, in that situation, but the song sounds right. In fact, one of the books that inspired the novel, The Underworld Sewer by Josie Washburn—who is fictionalized in the novel—inspired this scene and the music choice. In a section titled "One Night" Washburn depicts a brothel scene around 4am, when the madam locks the door and the girls have to somehow get the johns out. "We are all so tired, but we submit. One of the crowds has some trained singers in their party, and the singing they produce is worthy of a better place. And as we listen to the singing, we are carried AWAY OFF somewhere—where the surroundings are clean—and we hope that we will never return. Oh, what longings for home and friends of long ago it brings to us, and we only wish it would last forever!" It's a beautiful passage, with a lot of music of its own. I only wish Washburn had named the song the group was singing!

"Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and to Be Loved)" - Bright Eyes

Coming of age as an artist in Nebraska at the turn of the millennium, Bright Eyes was sort of unavoidable. Not that I tried to avoid the band; I was and am a big fan. Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted were the most influential, I think, both because the band was really coming into its power in those albums and because, just as important as anything, they came out when I was at the perfect age to receive them. The mix of political and confessional subjects, the enfant terrible incarnation, it was all good. "Let's Not Shit Ourselves" was the pinnacle of that era for me. The tour kickoff show for Lifted was at the Rococo Theater in Lincoln and featured some 18 members in the band, including three drummers and a harmonica player. They closed with this song, probably to get the whole band on stage at once; it was indulgent, drunken, and perfect.

From the very beginning, writing Kings of Broken Things, I knew that the story would climax with the riot. It was very intimidating to dramatize such a massive event, one that threatened to swallow up all the characters and sort of blow the roof off the house I'd been building for the previous 200 pages. This was a problem of plot, of course, but also an issue of sound. "Let's Not Shit Ourselves" works so well as a set piece, and I hope the riot scenes in my book function in the same way. Many of the best Bright Eyes songs are fine performed by a trio, or Conor solo, but the ensemble cacophony of this one is such a nice complement to the sparer sounds on the album that I couldn't imagine them separated.

"Desolation Row" – Bob Dylan

Near the end of the book, the morning after the riot, one of the main characters, Evie Chambers, waits in her apartment for her lover Jake Strauss to come home, not knowing whether or not Jake took part in the riot and lynching. It's one of my favorite moments in the book because of its complexity (Jake is unaware that Evie is passing as white) but also because it's one step beyond the point of no return for the city and these people in particular.

"Desolation Row" has long been one of my favorite songs, the final track on my favorite album, Highway 61 Revisited, one I listened to quite often when writing the novel. For months, while I wrote these last pages, I'd listen to "Desolation Row" on repeat while I drove to the Douglas County Courthouse—the site of the riot and lynching, and where I went to work daily as a reporter. The lyrical tone of the song, the sense of resignation in its rhythm, its reverence of by-gone places, these were all things I wanted to emulate in the final pages of the book. That its first words are "They're selling postcards of the hanging," I'm sure, contributed to the connection in my mind.

Theodore Wheeler and Kings of Broken Things links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Lincoln Journal Star review

Lincoln Journal Star interview with the author
Tethered By Letters interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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