American culture was shifting in the early 1900's. Harry Houdini was wildly popular. J.P. Morgan was the richest man in the world. Negroes and Jews lived in the slums of New York City. New Rochelle was an affluent suburb. Henry Ford started producing cars on production lines, changing the face of manufacturing. Electricity was still new. Perry was going to the North Pole. Death and sex were still highly visible in America, not yet hidden away.
Ragtime follows three families from different cultures - one prosperous white family in New Rochelle, a Jewish widower and his daughter, and a Negro man, his lover and their infant son.
Father runs a fireworks and arms factory in New Rochelle and Mother stays at home with their children. Mother's Younger Brother works for Father but has yet to find his purpose. Father is also a wanderer and joins Perry on a trip to the Arctic.
Mother's Younger Brother falls in love and thru his lover meets the widower Tateh and his daughter in the Jewish slums. But she is notorious. When Tateh discovers this, he and his little girl leave New York. After Mother's Younger Brother's lover leaves him for another man, he returns to New Rochelle still searching for his purpose.
While father is gone a Negro girl, Sarah, and her newborn son are taken in by Mother. After a few months a Negro man starts visiting every Sunday. He is the baby's father and wants to marry Sarah. Coalhouse Walker Jr. is a jazz musician from New York and owns an automobile that he drives back and forth to New Rochelle each week.
Trains are king and automobiles are still a novelty. Racism gets ugly when some of the white men in New Rochelle decide they have to do something about that uppity Negro who drives through every week. No one could have predicted the results their nasty prank had.
While Ragtime is a vocal story about the problems of racism, it is also a reflection of a culture in growth. The characters are grappling with change and acceptance. There is an excellent picture of this conflict when Father takes his son to a New York Giants baseball game. Father had thought he was a progressive but here he looks around and is unhappy with the things he sees.
E.L. Doctorow has written a novel where the story meanders in and out of the fictional characters' lives. He pulls in fictionalized accounts of real people, especially Houdini and Morgan. Eventually all the different story lines twist together in a book that's easy to read and very thought provoking. Life's answers aren't always easy. Neither are the answers in Ragtime.
Notice: Non-graphic violence; Suggestive dialogue or situations
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