City of Light (2003)

by Lauren Belfer

Buffalo is hardly America’s most exciting city nowadays, but at the turn of the 20th century, it was a star. In this debut novel, Lauren Belfer spotlights her hometown and one of the factors that made Buffalo sparkle in 1901: electricity. The power of Niagara Falls was being harnessed then by the burgeoning electric industry.

Protagonist Louisa Barrett’s connection to the Niagara hydroelectric power project is that her late best friend’s husband, Tom Sinclair, is its director. Also, Louisa is head of a girls’ school on whose board sit many of Buffalo’s most powerful men, advocates of the project to bring electricity to the masses. Tom sees himself as bettering society through electric light. Environmentalists see the Niagara power station as depleting the natural resource of water. And some people suspect Tom is a murderer after his two chief engineers die suspiciously. Louisa is torn between loyalty to her long-time friend and his daughter Grace and uncovering crime. She also is protecting a personal secret that involves the highest levels of the US government and has profound implications for Tom and Grace Sinclair.

Belfer keeps the story moving and covers a number of issues besides electrification — political influence, racism, the treatment of women, labor unions and socialists, and immigration among them. The information about how electricity was brought into American homes will be new to many readers. The story of America’s first great environmental battle will be eye-opening to anyone who thought environmental activism began later. Unfortunately, the quality of the book declines at the end with what seems an unnecessary death and downbeat ending.


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