Monday, January 21, 2019

MMGM/Nonfiction Monday- The Electric War

29540346 Winchell, Mike. The Electric War: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Light the World (Gilded Age #1)
January 22nd 2019 by Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt, Macmillan)
ARC provided by the author, E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

While I've been trying to find books about Tesla because he comes up every year as a National History Day subject, I had no idea how contentious and intriguing the "war" between Tesla, Edison and Westinghouse had been!

The Electric War first introduces us to our main players, with all of their talents, foibles, and eccentricities, and frames them against the glittering backdrop of the Gilded Age. Edison was a self-made genius, selling newspapers on a train route at the age of 12 and becoming a telegraph operator not long after. He had a vivid imagination that led to lots of ideas for inventions, but he also had a startling business acumen and an uncanny ability to market ideas to people. He was also tenacious to the point of pugnacity, and a hard task master for his employees. Tesla was a troubled but brilliant soul who had flashes of ideas that were both revelatory but also troublesome. He had an unfortunate business sense, and would rather sacrifice material gain for the name of science. Given his volatile nature, he didn't set up his own company and had difficulty staying on a stable path. Westinghouse was a fantastic example of moderation in all things; he was a solid inventor, a capable and shrewd business man, a fair employer, and a tireless worker. The qualities of these three inventors are crucial in understanding the place that each ended up taking in history.

In a gripping narrative style that had me avidly turning pages, Winchell sets the stage for all three inventors to grapple with their own inventions of businesses after tantalizing us with this innovation: the first electric chair. Once I read that Edison was persuaded to be involved with it's invention if the chair used the alternating current favored by his competitor, and even posited that perhaps the process of death by electrocution be termed "being Westinghoused", I was hooked!

We all learn about Edison's attempts to develop the light bulb, and all of the combinations of elements he tried before he reached success, but it was never clearly pointed out that even once he perfected the light
bulb, there was really no way to operate it on a large scale. No fixtures in which to use the bulbs and no wide spread electrical grid to provide power! Not only did Edison have to produce bulbs, but he had to create lamps and develop a system of electric substations to send out current. That he was able to do this in an area as already built up and crowded as New York City is amazing in itself.

We take electricity so much for granted that it was fascinating to travel back to a time when it was not only new, but extremely controversial. Electricity could lead to fires and even death! While it was, of course, extremely helpful to society, it took the 1893 Colombian Exhibition, which was Westinghouse's biggest marketing triumph, to show people that electricity could be useful as well as safe.

Complete with period photographs and some invention schematics, as well as an informative timeline and complete bibliography, The Electric War is powerful reading for fans of riveting, literary nonfiction such as Louire's Jack London and the Klondike Goldrush, Jurmain's The Secret of the Yellow Death: A True Story of Medical Sleuthing, Borden's Ski Soldier or Martin's In Harm's Way: In Harm's Way: JFK, World War II, and the Heroic Rescue of PT 109.

Wein, Elizabeth. A Thousand Sisters:The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II
January 22nd 2019 by Balzer + Bray
ARC provided by Young Adult Books Central

Even after almost 70 years, World War II remains a topic of fascination for middle grade readers, mainly because there are so many untold stories. One area that is ripe for exploration in the US is the activities of the Russian military during this time. It's sometimes hard to remember, considering all that went on in the latter half of the twentieth century, that Russia was on the Allied side of the war.

It's also hard to remember that in the 1920s and 30s, women were making a lot of progress in many occupations. I loved the statistic that in 1941, nearly one third of all Soviet pilots were female! This mirrors the strides women made in the US workforce before the end of the war returned women all over the world to the kitchen, despite the fact that they had proven that they could do "men's" work.

A Thousand Sisters tells the story of Soviet Airwomen in great detail, drawing on the experiences of many women pilots, some of whom survived the war, and many of whom did not. From the aviation experiences of pilots who ended up being in the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, to the set up of the Soviet military and the experiences of the women after the war, there is a wealth of detail about missions, living conditions, and the trajectory of the war in general, as it affected these brave women.

My favorite chapter was entitled "Life is Life" and discusses the difficulties and deprivations that these women faced. Since so few women were in the military, they had to endure wearing men's boots and underwear, and supplies were so scarce that often had to wash with water from puddles. While my own grandparents often complained about rationing, I know that they never had to eat wall paper paste or boiled shoes! These are excellent details to make the more quotidianal horrors of war come to life.

While this is a rather lengthy book, it would be perfect for National History Day projects on the role of women along with Mary Cronk Farrell's Pure Grit: How WWII Nurses in the Pacific Survived Combat and Prison Camp and and is a perfect companion for explaining the details of Kathryn Lasky's The Night Witches (2017).


  1. I have loved reading about WWII and hearing stories from my grandfathers' experiences. But I'm also very interested in The Electric War -- something I could stand to learn more about. Adding to my list. Thank you for sharing!

  2. I love Elizabeth Wein's books, know this will be terrific, too. And the other about the big three 'connecting' us in various ways to electricity sounds fascinating. I know some, especially about the Tesla/Edison conflict, but this too sounds great, Karen. Thanks for the reviews!

  3. Both of these sound fabulous Karen. My husband has an invention that he is trying to flog. I have learned that in order to be successful, you must have many different skills.