Friday, February 03, 2012
Book review: Ragtime by E.L Doctorow
Think of ragtime and you conjure up images of Scott Joplin and a very distinctive piano based sound that tends to stay in your head for a while.
What makes a rag so memorable is the rhythm and the pace and that bursts through on the pages here as the story ebbs and flows across the critical years of a family between the turn of the century and the first world war.
The main focus of the story is the mother, father, son and the grandfather and mother's brother who live in the house together. Father and his brother-in-law work in a bunting and fireworks factory which seems to be doing pretty well. The son is introduced mooching around in a sailor suit and so you sit back and wait for a story charting his growth to a man to emerge.
In some ways it does but this story is not about him. It is about some pretty big things ranging from the state of American race relations, the position of the oppressed working classes and the prospect of secret societies founded by the richest men determined to find the answers to conquering death.
It starts with a child being abandoned in the garden. The determination of the mother to help the child and the poor mother sets the family on a course that involves it with some weighty issues. A ragtime playing pianist courts the child's mother and life seems to be going well until he is raciallty abused by firemen. They vandalise his T-Ford and as a result he becomes determined to get retribution.
That determination leads to a terror campaign bombing firehouses and intertwines with the emerging civil rights movement, which is depicted as wanting a compliant rather than confrontational relationship with the authorities.
That story would be gripping enough but add to the mix some of the most well know figures of the time and what you get is a heady mixture of history and fictional emotion.
Houdini the great magician emerges as a tragic figure in love with his mother and desperate to find a thrill that will satisfy his longing for adventure. Freud pops over on a boat and leaves fairly sharply after finding America distasteful. But it is the obsession with mastering the afterlife that drives J.P Morgan. Henry Ford comes across as a grumpy factory boss with the riches but not the grace or brains that usually come with them.
Put it all together and you end up with a wonderful tale of a country at the start of a new century trying to come to terms with itself and dealing with the demands and desires of the people who make up the population of that great continent. Sound familiar? That's exactly why it translates as such a good read for today as well as tomorrow.