Tuesday, August 18, 2009

189. Ragtime – E.L. Doctorow

History: Published in 1975.
Plot: The novel opens in the year 1902, in the town of New Rochelle, New York, at the house of an upper class family composed of Mother, Father, and the little boy. Mother's Younger Brother falls in love with the famous beauty Evelyn Nesbit, whose husband Harry Kendall Thaw has recently been charged with the murder of her ex-lover, architect Stanford White. Harry Houdini's car breaks down in front of the family's house, and he pays them a visit. Father leaves on a trip to the Arctic with the explorer Adm. Robert E. Peary.
An immigrant family, consisting of Mameh, Tateh, and the little girl, live in the Lower East Side in utter poverty. To make ends meet, Mameh is forced to prostitute herself to her employer. When Tateh finds out, he takes the little girl and leaves. Evelyn Nesbit visits the Lower East Side, where she becomes enchanted with Tateh's daughter, and soon her visits become regular. The little girl becomes ill, and Evelyn cares for her. Mother's Younger Brother begins to follow Evelyn everywhere without her knowledge. Tateh, Evelyn Nesbit, and the little girl attend a socialist meeting whose featured speaker, Emma Goldman, praises Evelyn for employing her sexuality to gain prominence in a male dominated, capitalistic society. Mother rescues and claims responsibility for a newborn baby she discovers buried alive in her backyard; she soon learns it is the child of a black washwoman named Sarah.
Evelyn Nesbit and Mother's Younger Brother start to see a lot of one another. Mother's Younger Brother helps Evelyn search for Tateh and his little girl, but to no avail. Tateh and his daughter happily leave New York City and travel up the Eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, Houdini learns how to fly planes, and performs a demonstration for Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie. Father experiences a feeling of profound isolation upon his return to New Rochelle. Mother's Younger Brother becomes proficient in the use of bombs. Tateh and his little girl travel to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where there is a strike against the textile mills, and continue to many other cities.
In Philadelphia, Tateh finds a novelty store where the owner agrees to buy the movie books (flip books) Tateh has invented. Tateh decides they will return to Lawrence to settle down. Henry Ford pays a lunch visit to J.P. Morgan and they discuss technology and religion. One afternoon, a black man named Coalhouse Walker, the father of Sarah's child, stops by the home in New Rochelle, asking to see Sarah, who refuses to see him. After Coalhouse continues to call on her every Sunday, Sarah finally accepts his proposal for marriage. One day Coalhouse Walker is driving to New York when volunteers from the Emerald Isle firehouse, led by fire chief Willie Conklin, bar his path. While Coalhouse seeks help from the police, the volunteers wreck his car. When Coalhouse complains, he is arrested. Coalhouse dedicates the funds he originally intended for his wedding toward securing a lawyer. However, he cannot find a lawyer willing to represent him.
One night, Sarah leaves the house to attend an event at which Mr. Taft's Vice- President would be present; she wishes to petition the federal government on Coalhouse's behalf. However, the secret service men hit her hard in the chest; she soon grows ill and dies. In revenge, Coalhouse causes an explosion at the Emerald Isle firehouse, killing four volunteers. Father and Mother's Younger Brother fight over the situation, and Mother's Younger Brother leaves the household to join Coalhouse and his followers. Mother and Father move to Atlantic City to escape the scrutiny of the townspeople. Willie Conklin also begins to feel a lot of pressure to leave town. Mother and Father meet Tateh in Atlantic City, and the little boy and the little girl soon begin to spend a lot of time together.
Coalhouse and his followers break into the library of J.P. Morgan, who is abroad at the time, and threaten to explode the building. The District Attorney Charles S. Whitman calls Coalhouse, who reiterates to him his original demands that they return his vehicle and that Conklin dies for Sarah's death. Booker T. Washington attempts to persuade Coalhouse to end his siege, but soon leaves out of frustration. Father then meets with Coalhouse, and approaches Whitman with his demands, at which point Whitman presents Coalhouse with both his Model T and Willie Conklin. After his followers leave free of punishment, Coalhouse exits Morgan's house, and Father, still inside, hears the firing squad. Police report that Coalhouse had made an attempt at escaping, but he more likely made a slight movement that he knew would cause his death. Mother's Younger Brother, having secured the use of Coalhouse's Model-T, travels all around the country and soon to Mexico, where he joins revolutionary forces and dies about a year later.
As tensions in Europe develop, World War I approaches. Morgan travels to Egypt, where he hopes a visit to the pyramids will restore his sense of spirituality. Rather, he cannot sleep and becomes disheartened by his failure to experience what he has expected. Soon his health rapidly deteriorates and he dies. The narrator describes the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie. Father dies aboard the Lusitania, and a year after his death, Tateh and Mother marry each other.
Review: A wonderful book that tells the story of 3 intermingling families as they are involved in historical events. Set in the early 1900s to 1917, Doctorow uses real people (Houdini, Freud, Henry Ford, J.P Morgan, etc.) to tell a fictional story. The families represent the ideals and failures of that time in history when change was occurring so quickly (Ford's assembly line) right before World War I. In fact, it is the automobile that acts as another character in the novel, introducing Houdini to the family as well as initiating the main conflict in the later pages of the book. It is not a linear story but a combination of scenes and people which gives a unique perspective of America in the early 1900's.
Opening Line: “In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York.”
Closing Line: “And Henry K. Thaw, having obtained his release from the insane asylum, marched annually at Newport in the Armistice Day parade.”
Quotes: He felt if there was something more than he knew, it lay in the past rather than in the present, of whose total bankruptcy of existence he was confident.”
“He would gaze at himself until there were town selves facing one another, neither of which could claim to be the real one, The sensation was of being disembodied.”
Rating: good

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