The 2014 novel Electric City by Elizabeth Rosner is many things at once: historical fiction, a novel about social classes, a modern mini-epic, and maybe even a potential movie or television series. Above all, it seems to me to be a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel about a teenage girl growing into adulthood, inside and outside of her hometown, Electric City, New York. I’ll come back to discuss the other types of fiction this novel represents, but I want to begin with Sophie Levine’s story because in many ways her story parallels my own growing up.
Electric City, a fictional name for Schenectady, New York, is located in fiction and in reality on the Mohawk River. Electric City/Schenectady is historically significant for many reasons but especially because of its selection by Thomas Edison as the home for the General Electric Company, founded there in 1892. Though never specifically named in the novel and only referred to as “The Company,” it’s quite clear to anyone with even a modest knowledge of American business history to know what company Rosner is referring to.
In the novel’s opening pages, we meet Sophie Levine, a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl in November, 1965, living with her parents in a middle-class home in this “company town.” It’s a town that we learn soon learn is existing on the outer edge of its “glory days” when it was teaching the rest of America, and the rest of the world, how to “Live Better Electrically.” In a company town, one learns to live in the town’s rhythms, the pulses often signaled by work whistles that announce the start of the work day, the daily lunch hour, and then finally day’s end.
The economy that is built around a company town’s main employer is always its blessing and its curse. As we watch Sophie go through her high school years in Electric City, making friends, finding part-time work at the library, and falling in love for the first time, we also learn that labor issues and the lure of lower taxes in other states forced The Company to move some of its workforce to other regions, mainly southern U.S. cities, even Asia. Since the mid-60s, “thousands of families had been exiled from Electric City all the way to Virginia in the aftermath of layoffs and ‘relocations.’” The domino effect of mom-and-pop businesses closing in a city’s long-thriving downtown began in this decade not only in Electric City but in many company towns across America.
How well I know that story. Sophie and I are separated at birth by only two years, and I too grew up in a company town, mine Bremerton, Washington, where the chief employer has been Puget Sound Naval Shipyard since 1891, coincidentally founded just a year before General Electric’s founding in Schenectady. I grew up listening to the PSNS whistles announcing the same workday routine that was Electric City’s. I could even hear those whistles across Sinclair Inlet in Port Orchard, Washington, during my three high school years. Sophie knew the Mohawk River; I knew Puget Sound.
William Bremer, the founder of the city of Bremerton, lived from 1863 to 1910. His city borders PSNS on three sides, so its economy has always been interdependent with the shipyard’s. Today, Bremerton’s population is around 39,000 people, but during World War II, with the shipyard operating 24 hours a day, the workforce grew to over 32,000 people and Bremerton’s population burgeoned to over 80,000.
My family lived on “the other side of the tracks,” in Navy Yard City, a poor suburb of Bremerton, much like the “suburb” one of Sophie’s friends, Martin Longboat, grew up in on the other side of the tracks in Electric City, except in Martin’s case that meant the other side of the river, The Mohawk. Martin grew up without a mother and he seldom saw his itinerant father; I grew up in a divorced family and lived without my father.
In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Bremerton was still an economically vibrant town with a downtown core filled with businesses such as Sears, Penney’s, Woolworth’s, the Roxy and Admiral movie theaters, and of course Bremer’s Department Store, homegrown and named after the town’s forefather. Somehow, despite the coin chomping parking meters that existed all over the town, thousands of Kitsap County residents still flocked to downtown Bremerton for their major shopping needs.
Economic changes began to occur in Bremerton in the mid-60s and grew more severe in the early 70’s. Bremerton business owners for many years chafed at the stranglehold the Bremer family held on the downtown, and they were sickened by the high rents and lack of modernization needed for the downtown core to survive. Meanwhile, in 1973 the Bangor Naval Base in Silverdale became the headquarters for the Navy’s new Trident nuclear submarine program, and the small naval base at Keyport, near Silverdale, expanded its torpedo program to supplement that Trident expansion. No longer was PSNS the only military game in town.
To Bremerton business owners, the small, rural town of Silverdale looked to be the next Kitsap County economic Mecca, and so by 1985, with the opening of the Kitsap Mall and its acres of free parking, many Bremerton businesses fled that town to relocate in Silverdale. Almost overnight, Bremerton became a ghost town—as Electric City did in the late 60s and early 70s–and to this day it’s never fully recovered.
How I remember the 50’s, the last decade of glory for Bremerton, when I could catch a city bus in Navy Yard City on Saturdays and ride downtown to spend the afternoon at the Roxy or Admiral Theater for a double feature. Or I could visit the large white-stuccoed City Library on 4th street and lose myself in a world of books. Or I could wander the bustling sidewalks and window-shop, eventually ending up on a red-cushioned diner stool in Woolworth’s, sipping an ice-chilled Coca Cola through a long plastic straw, day dreaming about my next adventure.
Sophie’s world in many ways was my world. We were curious, diffident, cautious, eager- to-learn wonderers and wanderers. Coming of age novels that parallel our own lives often become autobiographical to us and therefore increase our pleasures in reading them. Electric City did that for me.
Unlike Sophie, when I left for college, I wasn’t drawn to the world of science but rather to the field of literature. One of the novels I was asked to read for a Contemporary American Literature class I took as a sophomore was John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, 1312 pages of historical fiction represented in The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936). As I read Electric City, I couldn’t help but compare in to USA.
Dos Passos’ historical fiction used four inventive story-telling devices to unfold his narrative about twelve main characters learning to survive in America from about 1900 to 1920: a “newsreel” comprised of real newspaper clippings and song lyrics; mini-biographies of real people of the day such as Henry Ford and Woodrow Wilson; “the camera eye,” or the author’s stream of consciousness about himself; and finally, the purely fictional accounts of fictional lives.
The ambition of this work: fictional stories interwoven with real people’s lives, told in 1312 pages.
Electric City spans a period of time—not counting the first chapter that takes us poetically back to when “there were no names at all”—from the birth in 1865 of Charles Steinmetz, the central historical and symbolic figure in the novel, to the novel’s end in November, 1977, a little over 100 years.
Rosner introduces us to more characters than Dos Passos did with his twelve central fictional characters. Besides Steinmetz, the immigrant Bavarian scientist and inventor; we meet Joseph Longboat, a Mohawk Indian and life-long friend to Steinmetz during his years in America; Longboat’s wife, Annie; their grandson, Martin Longboat, Martin’s wandering father, Robert, who is Joseph and Annie’s son and who marries Martine, Martin’s mother, who dies shortly after his birth; Sophie Levine and her Jewish mother and father and older brother, Miriam, David, and Simon (we hear about another Levine child, Lily, who has died); Steinmetz’s adopted family, Joseph and Corrine Hayden and their children Joseph Jr. and Marjorie, his favorite person other than Joseph Longboat, affectionately nicknamed by him as “Midge”; and finally the Van Curlers, a wealthy Dutch family with 1700th century roots in the new world, father and mother Arthur and Gloria, and their two sons, Henry and his deceased brother, Aaron.
If I counted them up correctly, that’s nineteen characters, whose stories are also told through a mix of inventive fictional styles. Imaginative? Yes indeed. But if those last two paragraphs wore you out slightly, you get a sense of what I’m trying to compress here: nineteen different characters, whose stories are told over a period of 100 years, but all this packed into just 320 pages divided into 70 chapters.
I believe it takes a lot of ambition to try to pull off this fictional trick in a relatively brief number of pages. It’s a sort of high wire act which I thought of as being played out on those metaphorical wires that are faintly drawn lines on the bare white pages that separate each of the novel’s three books, probably intended to be symbols of electricity being sent and received, but maybe something more as well.
Rosner is a clever writer. She never creates a careless image. For example, in the novel, teenager Sophie is reading a novel, which just happens to be Middlemarch, by George Eliot. This ambitious 19th century Victorian novel, written by a woman who assumed a man’s name and moved into a “man’s” field of fiction writing (much like Sophie’s choice to become a woman doctor, who enters a “man’s” field of medicine, then works in a New York City hospital emergency room rather than practice medicine in a more acceptable woman’s role, as a family practice doctor) is considered today to be one of the greatest works of British fiction.
Eliot’s novel is also an example of historical fiction, one of literature’s first. It involves story lines with well over twenty main characters, and it’s also filled with many scientific allusions that give backbone to the fiction. First published in 1872, today’s modern paperback Signet edition of this 80 chapter classic contains over 900 pages.
Why then, I asked myself, with these two famous examples of historical fiction looming large in literary history, would any novelist attempt to compress as much history as Rosner does into as brief a novel as Electric City is?
I think we have to look to the late 20th century for comparative examples, and the work that came to my mind is Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. Published first in 1975, this historical novel containing 40 chapters is only 270 pages long, less than the length of Rosner’s novel. It, too, focuses on a New York city, in this case, New Rochelle, at the turn of the 20th century. The central business enterprise in Ragtime is a company that produces flags and fireworks. The lives of a white family and a black family are interwoven with the lives of immigrant families from Eastern Europe, and Doctorow uses subplots about famous people such as J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Harry Houdini to facilitate his creation of an American epic, but a mini-epic by past standards.
It’s not surprising to me that as we neared the end of the 20th century, historical fiction, almost by necessity, needed to develop more abbreviated formats than were used for Middlemarch or USA. Many modern readers just don’t have the reading stamina to stay with a 900 to 1300 page book. For economic survival, most historical fiction writers of today write briefer, more episodic fiction, such as Rosner did, no matter what the topic is.
Episodic. There’s a hidden payoff for the modern writer with this stylistic change. Consider that even the lengthy Middlemarch has been made, several times, into a movie, television production and even a theater production. Ragtime was made into a very successful movie in 1981. Think of Brideshead Revisited, The Right Stuff, or Schindler’s Ark, all historical fiction turned into modern screen productions and all only around 400 pages in length. No longer does an epic need to be of epic length.
I can imagine Elizabeth Rosner looking at a computer screen while writing Electric City, but I think she may have been also seeing another, future screen, where romance and history might engage us, Hollywood style.
When Sophie Levine meets Henry Van Curler, her first love, at The Company’s annual summer picnic in 1966, she thinks he is “the most handsome boy she’d ever seen,” and she is so attracted to him she wants to “touch him,” cinematic images to me. But there’s more.
The day after that picnic, Sophie notices a young man in the library where she works part-time, a teenager who will also become a future love interest of hers, Martin Longboat, a Mohawk. Sophie thinks his “dark obsidian eyes look like the last point of light on a tv screen.”
After Henry and Martin and Sophie all become friends, Henry goes away to his family’s summer retreat, a stately three-story lake house on Lake George. Martin and Sophie decide to surprise Henry and show up for a visit. When they arrive that afternoon, Sophie sees Henry in the distance. “Henry looked like a character in a movie, backlit by the lake,” Rosner writes.
The following winter, the three of them mutually decide to go ice skating on the frozen Mohawk River one fateful day. As they are lacing up their skates, Rosner writes, “Sophie thought that they could pretend to be in a movie together about Flatlanders….”
And when Sophie finally becomes a doctor and is working in Mt. Sinai Hospital’s Emergency Room, a “little girl in blue” is wheeled into the ER, unconscious, and as the lead ER doctor, Sophie is expected to save her, which she does. But as she strives to save this little girl’s life, Sophie thinks to herself that “she was just like the doctors she saw in the movies….”
It’s not enough for modern historical novels to be engagingly written. Do they now have to be cinematic as well?
Maybe one day in the near future we’ll see Henry Van Curler, Martin Longsboat, and Sophie Levine on a screen together, like a modern Jules and Jim and Catherine, only this time the backdrop won’t be World War I, it will be the Vietnam War. And the setting won’t be Alsace Lorraine, it will be the land between the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers, where the “blue horses of electricity” course through the land and through people’s hearts, where the pulse inside each body echoes “the same current as the universe.”
Charles Steinmetz fervently believed that “someday electricity will save the world’s heart.” It’s my belief that someday electricity will power a movie image that will show the world this novel’s heart.