Ragtime – E L Doctorow


Chosen by Sophia

Centering on an unnamed New York family, Ragtime hosts an array of fictional and real characters who seek to find their way at the turn of last century.

Ragtime is a snapshot of life in the US between the turn of the century and World War I. Businesses were prospering but at the same time poverty deeply affected many families. Racism was rife, immigration was high but immigrants struggled to integrate into the American way of life.

There is a tapestry of fictional and real life characters introduced to bring this snapshot to life. The primary narrative focuses on a New York family, referred to only as Father, Mother, The little boy, Mother’s Younger Brother, and Grandfather. They feature on the opening pages with Harry Houdini crashing his car outside their house.

From here the family’s life is altered when Mother discovers an abandoned new-born baby in the back yard. The child’s troubled mother, a black woman called Sarah, eventually comes to stay with them. Father returns from an expedition to the North Pole to learn of the new addition to the household and how it has affected his relationship with his wife and family. Younger Brother, meanwhile, is infatuated with the pin-up girl Evelyn Nesbit, and learning to make explosives.

The family business manufactures flags and fireworks, symbols of the enthusiasm for patriotic displays which captive Americans.

There are immigrant peddlers, ragtime musicians and other notable people such as Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, JP Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit and Sigmund Freud who slip in and out of the pages.

Poor Father, I see his final exploration. He arrives at the new place, his hair risen in astonishment, his mouth and eyes dumb. His toe scuffs a soft storm of sand, he kneels and his arms spread in pantomimic celebration, the immigrant, as in every moment of his life, arriving eternally on the shore of his Self.

The narrative moves with pace at all times, sliding between people, scenes, dialogue and moralities without slowing down. Sometimes this and the sheer number of characters can be too much, but everyone has their story to tell and you just need to accept the hive of activity and roll with it to truly appreciate it. It is a portrait of America at a turning point in its history, but history never stops and it feels like this book and it’s messages won’t either.

Published 1975
Random House
270 pages

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: