Doctorow does a brilliant job of weaving the story of this family with other fictional families and also with historical figures under a backdrop of turn of the century New York. Like all such historical fiction, I find myself wondering about the accuracy of the portrayals. Like – was Harry Houdini really so obsessed with his mother? I’m not sure I needed to know that.
One of those historical characters is the anarchist Emma Goldman. I am not particularly impressed with anarchists, but Doctorow made her a relatively sympathetic character. She is actually the voice of reason in a couple of scenes with the fictional characters. In one case, she is arrested in connection with an outbreak of violence. She had nothing to do with the crime, but had the moment to speak, almost like a narrator, about why such things happen in this country (spoilers):
“I am sorry for the firemen in Westchester. I wish they had not been killed. But the Negro had been tormented into action, so I understand, by the cruel death of his fiancee, an innocent young woman. As an anarchist, I applaud the appropriation of the Morgan property. Mr. Morgan has done some appropriating of his own…The oppressor is wealth, my friends. Wealth is the oppressor. Coalhouse Walker did not need Red Emma to learn that. He needed only to suffer.”
Actually, the oppressor was racism with a huge dose of apathy. But her perspective added an interesting element to the narrative.
Doctorow has written tons of books and is still publishing. You do not know how excited I am by that thought.