Steve's Reviews > Ragtime

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
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's review
May 09, 2011

really liked it

Sometime early in his career E.L. Doctorow figured out a great formula for historical fiction. He takes real life iconic figures from whatever era he’s covering and has them interact in believable ways with his fictional characters. It makes for a “show, don’t tell” scenario that brings history alive. With Ragtime, we get to peek inside the heads of Houdini, Freud, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford and others. In the process, we learn the issues of the day and get an authentic feel for the setting. We can appreciate the context and connections that animate his stories.

Ragtime is set in the decade leading up to WWI. There was a lot going on in those days, especially in a place like New York. It was a period of social unrest, brought on, no doubt, by the great divide between the haves and the have-nots. An upper middle-class family in New Rochelle was one focal point of the book, and a Jewish immigrant and his young daughter were another. Their changing fortunes were charted in revealing ways. A ragtime pianist also featured prominently – as articulate and clean as a President (sorry, Joe Biden has always seemed blunderously funny to me) until racist stupidity on the part of a fire chief pushed his buttons. Doctorow, as usual, weaved the stories together well. He was long on conflict, too, which kept the pages turning.

World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate were very good in a similar way, that is, in mixing real people and events with those of his own creation. At the same time, I’ve also noticed some common threads that have begun to put me off just a tad. For one, the men and even the young boys are often – how should I put it – carnally preoccupied. (Some might say it’s almost to the extreme of actuality.) Another repeated theme seems to be how much more fully evolved the Jewish soul is compared to the Gentile one. Again, some may say it’s a representative depiction of the true demographic, but it seems a little too overt when virtually all the Jews are wise (both in the book sense and the street sense), morally superior, and rife with character for having been so downtrodden. Doctorow grew up in the Bronx, of Russian Jewish parentage, so I suppose he comes by any biases honestly. It’s not like any of that particularly bothered me. It was just something I noticed. What seemed more provocative, though, was the favorable light he seemed to shine on the anarchists he profiled. Anytime killing people is part of your agenda, I like to believe you’re inviting an “Extremist” label to your cause, but I didn’t get the feeling from the book that E.L. agreed.

I’m still a big Doctorow fan, but I don’t necessarily look to him as a guide across history’s rockier political landscapes. When he’s just telling his stories, I think he’s great; as an essayist on morality, maybe less so.
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message 1: by Susan (last edited May 11, 2011 12:48PM) (new) - added it

Susan Your reviews are always so good because you are willing to point out aspects of books that bother you, despite giving them an overall strong rating. In this case your suspicions that Doctorow was a bit too easy on the Anarchists and was too one-sided in his depiction of various ethnic groups makes Ragtime even more intriguing to me. I'd better put it on my to-read list right now. The era, the locale, and my own previous good experience with World's Fair lead me to believe that this is a Susan-kind of book.

Steve I'm pretty sure it's one you'll appreciate, Susan. It might be good for me, too, if you can point out any of my biases about his biases. :-)

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