Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow

Book 15
Ragtime is the second book I have read by E.L. Doctorow and I must say that I love this guy.  Despite the fact that the copy I found at the Used Book Store was underlined and contained notes from someone that was clearly…not that bright.  She would write a couple of lines at the end of each chapter, summarizing the plot and regularly circled words and added a question mark, as though she did not know their meaning.  Words like “urchin”.  Her summaries indicated that she clearly missed the point of the story, like when she wrote “families improving” when the father returns home from his voyage to find that the mother has taken up management responsibilities at his office in an attempt to divert disaster and taken in a young mother and her newborn baby, who was found half buried in the vegetable garden; and his brother-in-law has buried himself in office work because he is suffering from a profound depression as a result of a broken heart.  OK, enough.

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.

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