Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)
E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime is one of those, “I can’t believe it took me so long to read this” kind of books. It has been sitting on my shelf for years, intriguing me but intimidating me at the same time. I have only ever read one Doctorow novel (Homer & Langley), which I loved, but for some reason, I didn’t believe Doctorow could do such a brilliant job twice. I was wrong. Ragtime is early-20th Century American in print. Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, and J.P. Morgan, racial tensions and union-building, women’s suffrage and world wars: Ragtime has it all, because America was dealing with it all.
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.
The story is narrated by an unknown third party, who refers to certain characters as “Mother and Father,” but who is never a part of the story himself. It is possible that he is their “adopted” son, but this is conjecture since the issue of the narrator is never addressed. It may also simply be a third-person omniscient presence, indicative of “the Historian.” Aside from this family, the main characters include a diverse group of folks, including: Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, an African-American pianist and the woman (maid to the above-mentioned family) who had his child, as well as a young, beautiful Starlet, a Jewish man and his daughter, and a women’s rights activist. Each of the characters represents something important about America at the time – an ideal, a bigotry, a fear, a promise. From the entrepreneur to the artist, from the activist to the magician, these people are individuals who, whether closely or distantly connected, shape the nature of a nation.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
At nearly 400-pages, this book – a period piece- could easily have been a drag. Historical fiction has been hit-or-miss with me. Some, like Irving Stone, manage to dance the delicate tight-rope of fiction and non-fiction, so that the real events –the facts of historical situations- are presented to the reader in a creative, highly readable way. Other authors make the mistake of presenting their works like a textbook, even if their story is largely fictionalized, so there is little pleasure or enjoyment to be gained from the experience of reading the book itself. Doctorow is much the former. Although he is dealing with real events and experiences, and has obviously done the research required for accuracy, his craftsmanship in writing truly shines. He is a brilliant storyteller and creative writer, who combines the real and imagined in a seamless way. The book was a page-turner for two reasons: the premise and the prose. They both work wonderfully.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
There is so much to say in this regard, that it is hard to know where to start. For anyone who is curious about America in the early-1900s, I would suggest this book. It is relevant, factual, believable, and still entertaining. There are so many different elements being explored (Mother/Son relationships, Employer/Employee relationships, the Immigrant experience, the Female experience, the Inventors, the Millionaires, the poor, and the powerful) that it makes the reader question who is the main character of the book. This can be distracting, until one realizes that the main character is The American. This book is entirely about the experience of being American in America during this time, and the realization that “American” meant so many different things (hope, power, money, love, equality, individuality, freedom) to so many different people but, also, the same thing to everyone: respect.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: American History, Literature, Historical Fiction, Race Relations, American Dream
“It was evident to him that the world composed and recomposed itself constantly in an endless process of dissatisfaction.”
“Friendship is what endures. Shared ideals, respect for the whole character of a human being.”
“It occurred to Father one day that Coalhouse Walker Jr. didn’t know he was a Negro. The more he thought about this the more true it seemed. Walker didn’t act or talk like a colored man. He seemed to be able to transform the customary deferences practiced by his race so that they reflected to his own dignity rather than the recipient’s.”
“And though the newspapers called the shooting the Crime of the Century, Goldman knew it was only 1906 and there were ninety-four years to go.”