It starts out so oddly. It’s off putting. There is a family whose members have no names only markers for their places Mother, Father, Younger Brother, the Boy. Then Houdini crashes his car into a tree and ends up sweating out an afternoon in the family parlor and that seems so unpromising. And yet. Stick with it. That’s my advice.
Houdini is only the first of the historical characters who will show up and the story will shift several times to highlight them and other (named) fictional characters. There is the impoverished immigrant Tateh with his beautiful daughter whose brief interactions with the socialite Eveyln Nesbit and the radical Emma Goldman send him running from his immigrant life into another altogether self-made American one. And Coalhouse Walker III, the black man who’s humiliation at the hands of a racist fire chief and his men provides the impetus for an ongoing battle for dignity and redress that ends with a dynamite rigged art collection of JP Morgan and a showdown in the streets of New York.
Both of these stories along with the story of our unmanned family bump into one another again and again. There are so many crossing stories that you can’t make a tidy summary of all the plot points. There are also a lot of characters, but Doctrow is a good enough writer that you don’t end up half way through the story going “and just who is Sarah?” You can follow each of the characters through the story and come away with an understanding of their differing views of the world the they share.
Doctrow is a lovely writer, his sentences sing along with the Ragtime music that CWIII plays on the family piano as he courts the silent girl Sarah. This book is an early experiment in mixing historical and fictional characters outside of the genre of historical fiction. There are a few unaccountably surreal moments. Freud and Jung in the tunnel of love on Coney Island stands out as one of them. But most of it is just odd enough to keep your attention focused where the writer wants it to be.
Once you fall into the ragtime tempo it rocks along.