Book Review of Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, For the Beacon. Written by Andrew H. Kuharevicz


Why do books exist?

During our current turbulent historical era at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the novel Ragtime (written by E.L. Doctorow, 1975, winner of the National book Critics Circle Award) is a remarkably poignant story about the first decade and a half of the twentieth century (1902-1917), and although it takes place over a hundred years ago, the narrative is striking in tone, sharing many of the same struggles that cause political and social tension today. The book is considered to be historical fiction featuring many important names and places. Characters such as Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P Morgan, Booker T. Washington & Archduke Franz Ferdinand all make appearances, as well as many events that have been etched into our collective consciousness.

Ragtime seems like an easy read with accessible prose and short sentences, it is a fun book that instantly you can tell that the writer had a ball writing. There’s a lot going on in this novel, but somehow author E.L. Doctorow (who died in 2015, other books of his include, Welcome To The Hard Times, The Book of Daniel & Andrew’s Brain) has crafted an American collage. Doctorow has been called one of the most important authors of the twentieth century, and after reading Ragtime, if you’re like me, you’ll need to go out and buy his other books. Ragtime is nothing short of a masterpiece. And let me do my best to explain why.

Beginning in New York City the reader is introduced to an upper-class family (protagonists of Little Boy, Father & Mother) who at first-glance seem to live a perfect nostalgic American lifestyle. The story is told with an unknown narration whose voice is one of the mysteries that linger even after the final page. We never learn who they are, even though we’ve been with them for over three hundred pages. This is an important detail that E.L. Doctorow uses telling the story of early modern America, a mystery an entire book club could be devoted to. Who is the narrator? Is it a character we’ve met? I’m sure a handful of people will have a handful of answers, and really, that is what Ragtime is all about. It’s about learning how to go on with your life even when the country around you is forever changing. The times are never going to be the same, and that’s what the characters deal with. They feel isolation, yearn for the search of spiritual awakening. The people of The United States (within the scope of our story) are missing something. And what is it? Nobody honestly knows, but the struggle within and external the individual, is very real.

From the invent of the assembly line to the sinking of the Lusitania. Every page you turn digs deeper into the decent of chaos that brings the country into World War One. For a while these are said to be the innocent years of America, where innovation creates more wealth than thought possible. But reality wasn’t as pure as they first thought, and the same can be said today of our United States. Racism, worker’s dehumanization as well as the fight of women’s suffrage. Child labor and discrimination against immigrants seeking a better life, you can interchange the early years of aviation with Elon Musk’s first flight of SpaceX carrying astronauts; centuries could be switched and the story would almost remain the same. For the most part the nice and normal of the first years of the twentieth century contain the same problems that we as a nation struggle with in twenty-twenty, and as is said almost so much it’s a cliché by now:

“Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

And is this true? Well, it sure does seem correct, but I could go on forever about Ragtime, all I know is that it’s a time machine of a book. Author E.L. Doctorow truly has typed-up an American classic where the ink disappears and gives you the feeling of being there, and that’s why books exist.

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