The first two decades of the 20th century are explored through the eyes of three families who lives intersect in New York City in the historical novel Ragtime.
The fourth novel written by E.L. Doctorow, the focus on pre World War time period of America was viewed through three families. The first is Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother and Grandfather.
The young son tells the story of his wealthy family, where Father is lured off to an Arctic expedition, leaving Mother behind while Mother’s Younger Brother chases after a wealthy socialite, Evelyn Nesbit, a real person of the time period.
Mother soon becomes distracted by the young Sarah, her son and her son’s Father Coalhouse Walker, He’s a talented musician who wants to take care of Sarah and the young son, but becomes a victim of racism when a mob destroys his car and actions lead to the death of Sarah.
Coalhouse becomes a vigilante in his despair, while young men take up his name to protest the racism they continue to suffer. Mother adopts the young son against Father’s wishes.
The third family is led by Tateh, an Eastern European immigrant who is trying to survive with his wife and daughter. He leaves his wife and protects his daughter, whose beauty attracts Evelyn, who wants to help the little girl. But when he realizes she’s a socialite, he hides his young daughter and starts to transform from a working class guy to a wealthy entrepreneur.
Tateh renames himself a baron and soon meets Mother. As the story continues, the backdrop of the industrial effects on society, the racism and prejudice faced by many in New York City and the ever-changing political atmosphere make for a unique backdrop for the three families.
Doctorow weaves in important people of the time period including Nesbit, JP Morgan, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini and Siegmund Freud, making them unexpected characters within the story.
Published in March 1975 by Random House, the novel became a bestseller, topping the New York Times Bestseller list from August until November. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for best novel in 1975 and in 1981 was adapted for the big screen into a film.
After seeing this film, I read the book, which weaves a poignant picture of early 20th century America, with its land of opportunity dream and its reality of putting up barriers against the new and the different at every turn.