Lightning Keeper

Lightning Keeper

4.0 2
by Starling Lawrence

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The Lightning Keeper is a sweeping epic novel of ambition, love, and enterprise in America. It is the story of an unlikely Romeo and Juliet romance at the dawn of the electric age, with the nation balancing on the brink of world war and a scientific revolution.

In 1914 Toma Pekocevic is a penniless immigrant in New York recently escaped from the bloody


The Lightning Keeper is a sweeping epic novel of ambition, love, and enterprise in America. It is the story of an unlikely Romeo and Juliet romance at the dawn of the electric age, with the nation balancing on the brink of world war and a scientific revolution.

In 1914 Toma Pekocevic is a penniless immigrant in New York recently escaped from the bloody politics of the Balkans that have claimed most of his family. He is also a gifted inventor who designs a revolutionary water turbine while working with Harriet Bigelow, scion of a proud Connecticut iron-making dynasty now fallen on hard times. Their attraction is immediate and overwhelming, but every circumstance is against them.

Toma is eventually drawn inside the industrial empire of General Electric, his machine an essential cog in its grand scheme to provide electricity to the entire country. His invention is all he has after losing Harriet to a wealthy politician, but Toma is determined to win her back, setting the stage for a confrontation that could change not only his life but the course of scientific progress.

Deeply evocative and utterly engrossing, The Lightning Keeper is a rich tapestry of technology, romance, and war -- an unforgettable and distinctly American saga that establishes Starling Lawrence as one of the most talented writers at work today.

Editorial Reviews

Harper Lee
“The Lightning Keeper is a great novel, a transcendent and enduring American novel. I loved it.”
“Lawrence has created a very American saga.”
The titular Lightning Keeper of this novel is Toma Pekocevic, also the main character of Starling Lawrence's Montenegro. As the novel opens in 1908, Toma is headed from the Balkans to America. On the way, he meets Harriet Bigelow, a beguiling young heiress. They share a brief romantic encounter, which is rekindled when their paths cross again in New York, six years later. Toma's commitment to Harriet leads him to take extreme measures to save her family's faltering company, but an accident forces him to choose between his passion for her and his love for his war-torn native land. Harriet, too, is forced into unwelcome decisions.
Bruce Murkoff
Lawrence's descriptive gifts are such that the history and science of electrical energy and turn-of-the-century manufacturing are given the power and fascination they must have held for people of that time. His writing is always crisp, often beautiful: "The incandescent cable burst through its vaporized sheathing, the arresters showering sparks, the air around them glowing like the halo of a saint." Clearly, Lawrence has a love of his subject, and readers might very well come away feeling as much fondness for a turbine engine as for the romantic vision of an America once lit by lamplight. This many-layered story pulsates with the power of two hearts beating in the darkness, waiting for that flicker of electricity that will light not only their way, but the way of a nation.
— The Washington POst
Publishers Weekly
Sparks fly in Lawrence's blend of romance and historical fiction, set against the struggle to harness electricity in the early 20th century. The editor-in-chief of W.W. Norton picks up where his earlier novel, Montenegro, left off: Toma Pekocevic lands in Naples, on his way from the political strife in the Balkans to America. In Italy, Toma meets Harriet Bigelow, the young heiress to a once prominent iron-making dynasty. A brief magnetic encounter leaves both adolescents changed-and charged-forever. Six years later, in 1914, the pair meet again by chance in New York. Determined to help Harriet save the Bigelow Iron Company from financial ruin, Toma invents a machine capable of revolutionizing electricity. But an accident forces Toma to choose between his passion for Harriet and his love for his war-torn homeland, now at the epicenter of WWI. Harriet too must choose between her love for the lonely immigrant and a wealthy suitor who could aid her family but whose affection leaves her cold. Meanwhile, General Electric has expressed interest in Toma's idea-and will stop at nothing to control the possibilities of power. Skillfully intertwining fact and fiction, Lawrence generates an electric history of ideas, kindled by the flames of capital and passion. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In a small Connecticut town in early 20th-century America, at a time when electricity is still a newfangled invention, Harriet Bigelow struggles with the decline of both her father's mental health and the family ironworks business, for which she has an aptitude. Then Balkan immigrant Toma Pekocevic (seen in Norton editor in chief Lawrence's previous novel, Montenegro) gets involved in the business, and his genius for invention and passion for Harriet combine to create a tension and suspense that carry the reader to the novel's end. Adding to the tension is wealthy Senator Truscott, whose own interest in Harriet and the Bigelow Iron Company forces Harriet to make some difficult decisions. Lawrence blends science and romance into an immensely readable story; his descriptions of the ironworks, Toma's water turbine, and the experiments for capturing lightning are as exciting as they are beautiful (in fact, this "technical" aspect is more about passion and the palpable connection between Harriet and Toma). Including historical photographs and appearances by real-life inventors, Lawrence's latest is recommended for all fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/05.]-Joy Humphrey, Pepperdine Univ. Law Lib., Malibu, CA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Ponderous second novel by veteran publishing exec Lawrence juxtaposes the fitful advance of early-20th-century American technology with the characters' stalled romantic aspirations. It's love at first sight for Harriet and Toma when they meet briefly in Naples in 1908. She's a 14-year-old upper-crust Yankee on vacation; he's a 16-year-old Serb whose full backstory can be found in Montenegro (1997). Six years later, Harriet keeps the books at her family's ironworks in Connecticut. Visiting New York with her deaf father to secure a contract to make wheels for subway cars, she discovers Toma serving as top assistant to the cars' manufacturer. Sent by his boss to stay at the ironworks while they "smooth out" the production process, Toma meets Horatio, a canny black man who operates the giant water wheel, and Olivia, Horatio's "wife" since she turned 12. A horrifying accident kills Horatio, cripples the wheel and dooms both contract and ironworks; on the plus side, it inspires Toma to invent a metal wheel, a big leap forward. He winds up in bed with Olivia, who falls in love with him. Toma still pines for Harriet, but accepts fatalistically her marriage to local banker and U.S. Senator Fowler Truscott. Why would a 53-year-old bachelor enter a marriage he does not consummate? Why is it so hard for the spirited Harriet to "balance the claims" of her two suitors? And why doesn't Toma fight for his dream woman? There are serious fault lines here. The author is on more solid ground with Toma's invention of a turbine and the entrance of two historical figures: Coffin, chairman of General Electric, and Steinmetz, the electrical engineering genius who foresees a national grid protected bylightning-arrestors. Toma, by now on GE's payroll, becomes the great man's "lightning keeper." This at least is a coherent storyline, unlike the endless yearnings of Harriet and Toma, who worships the Senator's wife unavailingly and abandons poor Olivia like roadkill. Machines supply the light here; the people are dim indeed.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.43(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Lightning Keeper

A Novel
By Starling Lawrence

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Starling Lawrence
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060825243

Chapter One

It had begun to snow, and she had been sitting in the car for so long that the snowflakes, such extravagantly grand and varied snowflakes, fixed themselves to the dark green cowling, like butterflies pinned to a board, for the motor was now as cold as she was. Her watch had stopped -- it was a pretty, unreliable thing, no more than a piece of jewelry against the dark silk of her dress -- and she did not know quite what time it was, only that the meeting between her father and Mr. Stephenson had been fixed for half past two in the afternoon, and they had driven at an immoderate speed down from Beecher's Bridge that morning, with her father wedged in the back by the great half-moon of iron, urging the driver to hurry.

MacEwan, a dour man in any circumstances, shrank into the collar of his coat and muttered to himself.

"What's that you say, MacEwan?" Her father must have seen rather than heard the remark, for his hearing was now reduced to the point where the only sounds that animated his reflections, other than conversation directed at him in very emphatic tones, were the thump and wheeze of the tub bellows at the Bigelow Iron Company or the clear ringing of the trip-hammer as it fell to theanvil, pounding, shaping, and purifying the glowing metal into bars. It was not much of the universe, Harriet thought, when compared to her own appreciation of music, quiet conversation, even the sound of a brook, and she knew, because her father had told her, that he once recognized and took pleasure in the songs of many birds, particularly the black-throated green warbler in the spring, and the cry of the loon in autumn, far away on the lakes of Great Mountain. It was fortunate, she thought, that the sounds remaining to him, the bellows and the hammer, were so deeply reassuring.

"I said, sir, it's no use asking me to go faster than the Packard wants to go, without it'll come to some harm. And that's a terrible weight of iron you've got on that seat with you, sir." Which indeed it was, and MacEwan had the grace or sense of self-preservation not to reiterate his point when the Packard experienced a puncture of the rear left tire, the one directly under the iron wheel, or piece of a wheel, that had been loaded into the car just before they left the Bigelow works.

Looking at the light now, and allowing for the snow, which made the day both darker and brighter, she guessed that it was sometime after four o'clock, an hour etched in her mind by virtue of the whistle blast marking the end of the shift in the furnace and forge. The eye knew that hour in all seasons, and the stomach too. What would she not give now for a cup of tea? She had not eaten since breakfast, and so it was not just the bracing warmth that she imagined but the odor and texture of iced seed cake, a fat slice of it, or a sandwich of any description, even a crust of unbuttered bread. Father had promised her a fine dinner at Delmonico's as soon as he had finished, had talked Stephenson around to his proposal, and he didn't imagine that would take very long at all. So if you'll just sit here like a good girl?

She had felt a burning in her cheeks when he said that, and had almost made an answer. At any rate she had turned sharply in the direction of this remark and found herself staring into the face of the fellow trying to shift the iron wheel off the seat and out of the car, a well-fleshed, confident, and not unattractive face, which, by dint of exertion against such a weight, matched or exceeded the rising color of her own. There were two of them struggling with the wheel in that awkward space, joking under their breath about how the old fellow could only make half a wheel at a time, and when the man caught her misdirected glance he grinned and even -- was she imagining this impertinence? -- winked at her before taking the entire burden of the iron onto his flexed knees, turning, and heaving it clear of the car with an explosive grunt.

Like a good girl . . . she could make herself blush simply by repeating the words. Her father often spoke to her thus, out of distracted affection, and she did not mind it. There's a good girl, he would say, perhaps in acknowledgement of a piece of toast. But today she minded very much indeed, particularly as the automobile trip from Beecher's Bridge to New York City, with the urgency of time and the anxious interruptions of the blown tire, was hardly an opportunity to discuss what would be said, what must be said, to Mr. Stephenson. She had hoped her father would remember that she wanted, and out of no mere vanity, to be included in this discussion on which the fate of the Bigelow works very likely hung. Perhaps she had not spoken loud enough, or been sufficiently assertive? Or perhaps her father simply had not wished to hear.

It was Harriet who had brought to her father's attention the item in a trade journal -- Iron and Steel News -- about the John Stephenson Company's contract to supply two hundred and eighty-five new subway cars to the IRT.

"Isn't that the same Mr. Stephenson who once took us to the baseball game?" she asked, putting the magazine by his plate. Yes, he thought that very likely, and a few solemn forkfuls later he wondered how old Stephenson might be getting on. "Getting on very well indeed, by the sound of it," Harriet replied, wondering how many wheels each of those many new cars was to have. "You don't suppose . . ."

"Suppose what, my dear?" Amos Bigelow was very little inclined toward supposition or abstraction of any kind.


Excerpted from The Lightning Keeper by Starling Lawrence Copyright © 2006 by Starling Lawrence. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Starling Lawrence is the editor in chief and vice chairman of W.W. Norton & Company. He is the author of the novel Montenegro and the story collection Legacies. He lives in New York City and northwestern Connecticut.

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Lightning Keeper 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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Set against the backdrop of the First World War, this is a wonderful story about the struggle for technological progress and of ill-fated love. Our lovers are frustrated by their perceptions of their roles in society, and struggle to resolve their feelings for each other without betraying their responsibilities. Alongside this bittersweet story, we are also treated to the struggle to create the modern electric power grid. The technical details are clearly described, and the author does a good job of describing the obstacles and the visions of the engineers that brought electricity to America. He also does a good job in showing the role of patents in this process. This is a wonderful book that paints a vivid portrait of the early part of the previous century and the people who lived then. There was one error in the details of this book that caught my attention, though. Beginning on page 208, the author describes Toma's visit the the U.S. Patent Office, describing its location as being at the Commerce Department Building (page 209). Unfortunately, the Patent Office did not move to the Commerce Department Building until 1932. From 1840-1932, the Patent Office was located in its own building, located in the block bounded by F, G, 7th and 9th Streets NW (now home to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art and National Portrait Gallery). Other than that detail, I found the description of Toma's visit to the Patent Office fascinating and true to life. (This review is based on a pre-publication Advanced Reader's Edition)