“Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow was the top-selling novel of 1975. The main character of the story is America at the dawn of the 20th century, specifically New York City. In its description of time and place, the novel can be considered broad and sweeping, but not so with regard to individual character development. It tells the story of a non-descript upper class family in New Rochelle consisting of Father, Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, and the Little Boy (who generally assumes the role of narrator). In contrast to the lack of names and character development for these family members, is a parade of historical figures that populates the novel including Robert Peary, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, and others. The appearances of these famous people serve to develop the character of America at the time, including its racial tension and exploitation of immigrants and children for industrial labor. Two personal stories however do unfold and capture the reader’s attention and sympathy. One is the story of Sarah and Coalhouse Walker Jr. Early in the book, Mother is walking in her garden and hears cries coming from the ground at her feet. Soon she has excavated a newborn black baby that has been buried alive by its mother Sarah, a washwoman discovered hiding in the cellar of a nearby home in the neighborhood. Mother decides to take Sarah and her child into the family home. A bit later, a black musician who apparently is the father of the child arrives in a shiny Model T Ford and continues to come every Sunday trying to convince Sarah to marry him. Also, there is the sorry of the impoverished Jewish immigrant Tateh (“father”) and his little girl who struggle to escape abject poverty on the lower East side. The climax and denouement of the book as a story revolve around Coalhouse Walker Jr’s justifiable rage after losing Sarah and having his model T Ford destroyed by a racist local New Rochelle volunteer fire chief named Willie Conklin. If you like American history and period pieces, you will enjoy this book.
I was invited to join Lunch by one of the developers, who apparently read some reviews I posted on Library Thing. My interests are books, music, and movies. I enjoy both classical and contemporary fiction, … more
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