|Elizabeth McGovern played original "It-Girl" Evelyn Nesbit in the Milos Forman film version of E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel Ragtime.|
by E.L Doctorow
I quite enjoyed Ragtime, Doctorow's 1975 work of historical fiction. Set largely in New York in the years prior to World War I, Doctorow blends a large cast of fictional and non-fictional characters in refreshing and novel fashion. You've got J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit (America's first "It Girl." Each of these historical figures have a sub-plot where they are treated in an irreverent fashion, blending factual history with a work of fiction.
The major plot concerns a wealthy family living outside of New York. They are referred to only by their family names, Father, Mother, Younger Brother. The narrator at times appears to be a young son of the family, other times Doctorow adopts the third person. The plot takes some time to develop, what with all the existential musings by Houdini and J.P. Morgan's obsession with the Egyptian pyramids and immortality.
Mother finds an abandoned African American infant in their spacious yard. She save the child and agrees to shelter the child's mother, an African American servant with no family. Coalhouse Walker, the child's father, eventually finds his way to the family, where he slowly courts the mother of his child. All appears to be headed towards a happy resolution for the young couple, when Walker's Model T Ford is vandalized by some local firefighters, resentful at the figure of an African American motorist using their roads.
Coalhouse becomes obsessed with obtaining justice for his vehicle, and when his fiance suffers an untimely death, he goes off the rails and launches a terrorist campaign against the men who have wronged him. Doctorow covers an amazing amount of territory in roughly 300 pages. It's a lesson in succinctness that might have been better observed by his succesors.