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January 13, 2010

The 2005 movie Crash, winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, revolved around everyday, multi-ethnic people who collide with each other in Los Angeles amid racial and social tensions. Along these same lines is E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, which focuses on a Jewish family, an African-American family, and a Caucasian family that all come together over a period of years in New York and change each other’s lives.

Just like the plot of Crash, several stories occur simultaneously in Ragtime. The book opens in turn-of-the-century America with a traditional upper class Caucasian family living in New York. One day the mother discovers a live African-American baby buried in their backyard; she finds the mother of the baby and both the mother, named Sarah, and her baby move into the house. At the same time, a family of Jewish immigrants arrives from overseas, and are so financially strapped that both parents and the young daughter work in the mills, until the father hits it big with his ‘moving pictures’. The father of Sarah’s baby, a decent and successful musician named Coalhouse, is harrassed by several white firemen because of his color, and his car is vandalized and Coalhouse is sent to prison when he tries to protest. Sarah dies while trying to secure Coalhouse’s release, and Coalhouse goes on a rampage to get revenge, killing firemen and blowing up firehouses. How it all ends up, you’ll have to find out for yourself.

There are lots of little substories involving famous people like Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud, JP Morgan, and Henry Ford, who also mingle with varying ways into the lives of the three families. Their stories, however, are nowhere near as fascinating as those of the fictional characters, and almost seem like afterthoughts dropped into the story. I’m not sure if Doctorow felt his story would be more interesting with real-life personages, or if he wanted to use the real-life personages to give the story a historical perspective. I think the story would have been just fine without them, personally.

I enjoyed this book a lot. Once I got used to the back and forth style of writing Doctorow uses while switching in between all of his characters, it was easier. He used short, concise sentences, which surprisingly didn’t detract from the detailed picture he was trying to create. The narrative definitely sucked you in and had you caring about the characters and wondering how everything would turn out for everyone. I was so PO’d reading the section about Coalhouse’s harassment. It is unfathomable to me that there was a period in this country where it was acceptable for anyone to be treated that way.

The front cover of Ragtime calls it “the astonishing bestseller about America”, and while it only spanned maybe 15 years of American history, it displays our country at a time of innocence that would never happen again, before World War I, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement and before terrorism and Communism really got going. It was strange to see famous people walking around in the book without paparazzi trailing their every move or without a posse of bodyguards. Those were really the days! Now movie stars can’t even go to Starbucks without escorts.

An enjoyable read you won’t be sorry you picked up.

Grade: B-

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