Bookworm: Electric City – A fascinating and weeping slice of Americana

‘The Power of Awareness’ is perfect for when life gets a little hairy

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Electric City: The Lost History of Ford and Edison’s American Utopia”

  • By Thomas Hager
  • c. 2021, Abrams Press
  • $28, $35 Canada; 296 pages

“I want that!” Three words you’ve been saying, out-loud or quietly to yourself, ever since you’ve been able to talk. Because, of course, you want things, treats, toys, and other accoutrements of humanness. You want them, and you won’t take “no” for an answer – even if, as in the new book “Electric City” by Thomas Hager, there are big hurdles.

“Electric City: The Lost History of Ford and Edison’s American Utopia” by Thomas Hager.

If you can imagine a jagged, goofy smile from east to west across the top of Alabama, then you can envision the Tennessee River. It’s an area filled with welcome vistas but in the late 1700s, when settlers began showing interest in living along the bottom loop of the Tennessee, they were met by unwelcoming Natives. After Andrew Jackson removed those Natives from the area, called Muscle Shoals after the mussels found in its waters, he allowed development there.

Ninety years later, in 1921, Henry Ford was invited to take a look.

Just decades prior, Thomas Edison had stunned the world with electricity and the possibilities it offered, and developers wanted in on that. Two of them, Frank Washburn and J.W. Worthington, landed government support to build large dams across the Tennessee River – first, as electricity generators and secondly, to make nitrogen fertilizer for American farmers. Crews worked feverishly on the project until the end of World War I, when officials realized that new, better technology had already made its factories obsolete.

Muscle Shoals, as a project, was done.

Towns that sprung up to house factory workers disappeared and the government was stuck with buildings for which they had no use. Meanwhile, in Michigan, Henry Ford began construction on new facilities for Model T manufacturing; officials noticed, and Ford was invited to view the Muscle Shoals compound, for which he shrewdly made a bid.

But it was a weak one, complete with half-promises and vague assurances – and Ford dug in his heels, convinced he’d win. Repeatedly given the chance to change his bid, he stood firm. Ford was a take-it-or-leave-it kind of guy.

And certain government officials were inclined toward the latter...

Tell your average toddler “no,” and you’d best be prepared to do battle in a dozen ways. They won’t go down quietly and neither did Henry Ford. Some may admire him for his perseverance, or for his vision, or read “Electric City,” and you might call it folly.

Or hubris, as author Thomas Hager shows in his account of Ford’s many attempts to prevail and the political contention that thwarted him and the utopia he foresaw. Hager tells of government officials and the public taking sides – and readers will, too, perhaps paralleling modern opinions on wealth and privilege. Hager writes tantalizingly of an early-twentieth-century President Ford, leaving us to imagine a big what-if, and he brings readers current.

So, did Ford deserve to get his way? And was Edison, who seems to be a peripheral character in “Electric City,” really as supportive as he appeared at first? Find out by reading this fascinating, widely-sweeping slice of Americana. If you love history, yeah, you want that.

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“The Power of Awareness”

  • By Dan Schilling”
  • c. 2021, Grand Central Publishing
  • $28, $35 Canada, 250 pages

The little hairs rose on the back of your neck. That’s how you knew something was wrong. You sensed it before you knew it, felt it before you saw it when the hairs rose on the back of your neck and your gut felt like gelatin. Did you listen to what your body was telling you, or should you read “The Power of Awareness” by Dan Schilling so you know what to do next time?

"The Power of Awareness" by Dan Schilling.

You weren’t being silly. That’s what we often tell ourselves when those moments of “Uh-oh” hit and we feel a sense of awfulness-to-come, for no apparent reason. Ignoring that warning doesn’t seem wise but leaving or turning around might feel like an overreaction, though Dan Schilling says doing so might save a life. Yours, in fact.

Schilling knows what he’s talking about: he was a squadron commander in Somalia. He’s served in the military overseas, has worked as a Combat Controller, and established and commanded two “special operations squadrons,” among other things. He’s survived random violence and he says that the average person can learn to do the same, with “six safety rules” that fall into three broader categories.

First of all, know what’s around you, a skill Schilling calls “Situational Awareness” or “SA,” and trust your intuition when you sense something wrong. Prepare by knowing if there’s a problem or one is about to happen, then learn how to make a plan appropriate to the situation. Act “decisively” and then escape with the “Two Rs” in mind, regroup and recover.

Schilling says it’s that last one that so many people struggle with.

“The Power of Awareness” author Dan Schilling.

Finally, get the “tools” you need to be ready for any situation. Prepare your home and business by noting entry points and know how to act when you hear a noise in the middle of the night. Reduce your appeal to criminals. Learn how to react to a shooter situation and if you can, fight. Always let “the bad guys ... know you won’t go quietly ...”

Here’s the most astounding thing you’ll learn when you read “The Power of Awareness”: You aren’t going to learn much. Even author Dan Schilling admits that some of what he says “may seem like statements of the obvious” but he also sums up the reason why you need his book: preparation and practice are everything. Especially these days.

Admit it: you’ve thought about how you’d act in the face of random violence, and this book will make you more ready to automatically move than to freeze. Schilling makes a game of it all, and he offers exercises you can try in any public place without looking like a “creep.”

But let’s say you live on the edge, you eat danger for breakfast, and you’re not a-skeered of anything. You’ll still find this book to be exciting entertainment because Schilling uses real-life, personal and authentic special-op tales as illustration for his points.

Secret double agents, move over and grab “The Power of Awareness.” This book is perfect for when life gets a little hairy.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.