Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime takes place at the turn of the twentieth century. Teddy Roosevelt is the president and the United States is at the onset of scientific discovery and the industrial revolution. Entertainment for the general population consists of parades and picnics, baseball and beer, and following the news. The media’s sole method of communication is newspapers.

The story revolves around the lives of one family from New Rochelle, New York who mysteriously remain unidentified… always referred to as the mother, the father, mother’s younger brother, and the son. And although Ragtime is purely fictional, you would barely know it. The story includes J. Pierpont Morgan, Houdini, the radical revolutionary Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, and several other lesser known real people. If their personalities seem exaggerated, that’s understandable. The entire story is a little absurd.

Doctorow sets the stage with colorful descriptions. J. P. Morgan is busy making money, lending money, and spending money. And while Henry Ford starts his first factory assembly line, Houdini thrills the general public with magical stunts, each one more daring than the last.

And amidst all the real events of historical significance, Doctorow weaves his fictional story. It’s a story of one black man seeking justice for a racially motivated hate crime. Coallhouse Walker Jr. was not your typical black man of that era. He was educated, spoke proper English, was a highly paid talented musician in Manhattan, and a proud principled man. I won’t give away the plot, but I will say the narrow-minded rural Fire Chief Will Conklin should never have messed with Coalhouse Walker – but he did – and what took place in New York that fateful summer sets off a chain of events that sparks fear in the citizens of New Rochelle while making national headlines.

Doctorow’s style of writing is plain and simplistic… sometimes outright boring. The story is told in an unemotional monotone by a third person, omitting all dialogue, and skimming the surface in character development. I doubt style had anything to do with Ragtime claiming Number 86 on Modern Library‘s list of 100 best novels. The plot of bigoted discrimination is most likely what earned this book fame, and it was very clever how Doctorow sprinkled his simple plot with anecdotes of famous people of that time – even if they weren’t entirely true. This helped create the early 1900s atmosphere without a lot of descriptive explanations and filled in the gaps… helping turn what would have been a short novella, into a full novel. Actually, it was a brilliant gimmick.

Rated 3 Stars

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