Doctorow not only manages to weave a perfectly crafted tale, but at the same time introduces several historical figures including, but not limited to Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Dreiser, Freud, Jung, Emma Goldman, Henry Clay Frick, Alexander Berkman, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington and Erik Weiss, aka Harry Houdini…whew, what a cast of characters. Doctorow introduces these characters very unobtrusively and the truly fictional characters very intimately so that the melding of them seems quite natural. And just when you’re wondering about a certain someone, he/she appears at just that moment.
So, it’s 1902 and in New Rochelle, New York, we meet Mother, Father, Grandfather, Little Boy and Mother’s Younger Brother…no names are provided and the need for them seems unnecessary. In contrast, we meet Mameh, Tateh and Little Girl living in the Lower East Side. While the families are at opposite ends of the social scale, they both face adversity and deal with a changing world. The families and the expanded cast cross paths, sometimes head on and sometimes with only a passing glance. If there is an equivalent bravo for literature, I stand and pronounce it here.
Harry Houdini, figures most prominently of the true life characters. Doctorow introduces him in New Rochelle when his car breaks down in front of Mother and Father’s home. He appears in several story lines with many of the book’s characters and we get to see some factual traits; his deep love for his mother, his disdain for bogus mediums and his love of aviation. His angst is keenly felt as he grapples with his place in the world.
Mother’s Young Brother isolates himself from the family and without intention, falls in with anarchists while stalking his idol, Evelyn Nesbit. Working for a fireworks manufacturer gives him the in he needs to help invade the home of J. P. Morgan with a wronged musician demanding amends. An interesting, yet troubled young man destined for tragedy.
The piano player of ragtime, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. is a man determined to set things right after a menacing encounter with a fire chief and his crew. His young lover and recent mother to his child dies trying to get help for him after an encounter with secret servicemen. Outraged at these events, he organizes a crew and begins bombing firehouses and threatens worse if his demands are not met. Of course, this can’t end well, and it does not, but not before Booker T. Washington intervenes and tries to thwart more bloodshed, without success. Another unfortunate man destined for tragedy.
Mr. Doctorow is now the third living author among those from the Modern Library’s list and one I’d truly love to meet. Perhaps he could read one of his short stories and share his methods. Ah, to dream of such an encounter.
READ THIS BOOK…
My rating for Ragtime is a 10 out of 10.
To see the entire list, visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.
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