By E.L. Doctorow

Random House



Cover by Paul Bacon

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime first appeared in 1975 and has since been adapted into a 1981 film (which I haven't seen) and a 1998 musical (which I have). Perhaps even more intriguingly, and the reason I decided to read the novel, it was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1975, losing out to Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. There was nothing in the musical which made me think it was a work of science fiction or fantasy, and reading the novel does not disabuse me of that notion.

Set in early twentieth century, Ragtime tells the story of an anonymous family living in New Rochelle, New York. The characters in the family are known throughout the book as simply "Mother," "Father," "Mother's Young Brother," "The Little Boy" and "Grandfather." They represent the successful upper middle class family and their anonymity is juxtaposed against the famous and infamous of the period, many of whom move through their sphere. Mother's Younger Brother becomes romantically involved with the historical singer Evelyn Nesbit, who gained notoriety after her husband shot her lover. That relationship puts him in contact with anarchists Emma Goldman. Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Booker T. Washington, and Robert Peary, who took Father most of the way to the North Pole with him, also make appearances. At times, these historical figures practically push the New Rochelle family out of the story entirely.

Even within the confines of their own story, which really doesn't take off until Mother finds an abandoned Black infant and the family finds and takes in the child's mother, their story is subsumed by the tale of the baby's father, Coalhouse Walker. The very act of naming Coalhouse means that Doctorow is bestowing on him the importance and fame otherwise reserved for the historical characters. Coalhouse is presented as a well-bred Black musician who has achieved success of his own, as demonstrated by the car he drives. In 1910's America, that sort of success for a Black man breeds resentment and Walker finds himself attacked by the members of a volunteer fire brigade led by Willie Conklin after visiting the family and his son. When the fire brigade vandalizes his car, Walker first seeks justice and, when it is denied, turns to vengeance, terrorizing the white community of New Rochelle.

One of the interesting aspects of Ragtime is Doctorow's decision to write the novel entirely in a narrative manner. Rather that providing the conversations the characters have as quotations, he includes pertinent aspects of conversations in his descriptions of the action. This, combined with the sixty years separating the novel's action from the time he was writing, serves to distance the action from the reader, despite the fact that many of the racial issues he was describing in 1910s America were just as relevant in 1970s America or 2020s America.

Doctorow manages to capture the feel of 1910s America in Ragtime. The novel opens with hope as he focuses on the famous on their way up, the successful businessmen, and explorers conquering frontiers. Walker's success demonstrates the feeling that anyone could achieve a reasonable level of wealth and comfort. Doctorow reveals that hope to be a thin veneer, peeled back as Mother's Younger Brother finds himself cast aside by Evelyn Nesbit, Walker realizes that a successful Black man can only be as successful as the white majority will allow him to be, and eventually World War I breaks out in Europe. By the end of the novel, the peaceful and hopeful world that opened the century has been turned upside down.

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