Seeking Restitution

"Ragtime" by E.L. Doctorow

Seeing Elizabeth McGovern on "Downton Abbey" lately reminded me of how good an actor she is. I remember seeing her in the movie, "Ragtime" many years ago, so I decided to read the book.

That kind of coincidence happens throughout "Ragtime" by E.L. Doctorow. The story takes place in the early 20th century in and around New York City. Movers and shakers of the time come in and out of the plot, bending it ever so slightly or changing it completely. Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman and Henry Ford appear in this fictional tale. Yet the names of the main characters are generic: Mother, Father, Younger Brother. Their contributions to the plot are equally generic, reacting rather than acting.

The protagonist does get named. He is Coalhouse Walker, Jr., an African-American jazz musician whose success in the form of a Model T causes the central conflict in the story. When a bigoted group of volunteer firemen ruin the car, Coalhouse demands restitution. Everything spins out of balance thereafter, including the family's cohesion, official lines of authority, and simple human values.

This book is not a casual read; it is literature. Doctorow's style allows him to go anywhere and everywhere. Dialogue is attributed, but not formally with quotation marks, which took some getting used to.

On the whole, this book is great and I can't wait to read more by E.L. Doctorow.

--Julie C., Headquarters


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