Ragtime has been on my list of books to read since the dawn of time.
I think it first made its way on to my to-read list back in my first year of uni (which was 9 years ago!) when we were given a list of books that our lecturers recommended.
Since then, it’s been moved from Wales to Surrey to Woking to Wales, between my uni halls, my uni house, my mother’s house, my sister’s house and then to my house where I finally started to read it!
My copy is a little bit battered which I love because it means it was read to death by others before it found its way to me – I even found a Delta Airlines plane ticket in the back for a flight between NYC and Chicago.
Who wrote Ragtime?
E.L. Doctorow wrote the novel in 1975.
How long is it?
Ragtime is 270 pages – that’s in my paperback Plume edition from 1996.
So, what happens in Ragtime?
Honestly, it’s pretty hard to say.
It’s not a conventional novel where we follow a protagonist through a story as such. The plot winds its way around different characters and we see little glimpses of each character’s tale along the way.
The book does tend to centre around a fictional family whose names are never given – they are merely called Mother, Father, Younger Brother (the Mother’s brother) and the Boy. Their lives intertwine with some legendary figures from history such as Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Evelyn Nesbitt.
Covering poignant themes such as racial tensions, class divisions and the sometimes harsh realities of the American Dream, I’d describe Ragtime as more of a snapshot of turn of the century America than a standard novel with a flowing narrative.
What are my thoughts?
To be perfectly honest, when I first started reading this book, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it and it took me a while to really take to it.
I think it was because my brain was trying to find a central protagonist to focus on and it couldn’t seem to find anyone. As well as that, you have the added dilemma of not having any names to go off within the family so it can be a bit confusing – I wasn’t sure where the book was going to go. However, once I’d relaxed a little into it and let the book lead me, I very quickly got into it.
It’s difficult to feel majorly emotionally invested in any one character because there are so many people to consider throughout the book, but I did become quite attached to Tateh – a Jewish peddler – and his daughter, as well as Coalhouse Walker – a black ragtime musician from Harlem who makes a stand after becoming the victim of a racially aggravated incident in which his beloved car is vandalised.
His fight back against the authorities tends to become the sole focus of the book after this event & it quickly became more of a page-turner for me then – I wanted to know where this was going to take Coalhouse Walker & what was going to end up happening to him.
The writing is absolutely exquisite in Ragtime. E.L. Doctorow paints the most vivid portrait of the US in the early 1900’s – I could close my eyes and see it all in front of me, smell it almost! I’ve never been to the US but the images Doctorow conjured up seemed so real to me. If you know New York well, I’m sure it will seem even more real to you.
As you’re reading the book, you can’t think how any of these little vignettes of all the character’s lives will be connected but within the last couple of chapters and particularly within the last couple of pages, it all comes together. By the time I finished it, I felt like I’d been on such a journey and all the loose ends were finally wrapped up. It was one of those books you close with a satisfied sigh and think about for a few moments before you get on with life again.
Just to note: I saw someone mention on Goodreads that they stopped reading the book because it was too graphic for them. There is a lot of graphic imagery throughout the book, including sexual scenes as well as physical violence. If you’re not up for reading anything like that, maybe give this one a miss. Personally, I felt there were some shocking moments but I didn’t feel it would stop me reading the novel to the end.
5/5 – a wonderful insight into 1900’s America and a beautiful literary style that will stay with me for a long time.
What are you reading while we’re on lockdown?