Fangirl Book Club Pick of the Month: “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow

Ragtime by E.L. DoctorowEvery month, our club votes on which book we will read for that month. December’s winning book was E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. The following review is based on an online discussion after Decemberr’s meeting.

Spoiler-­free Synopsis:

First published in 1975, Ragtime is an intricate tale of life in pre-World War I America. Expertly weaving together fiction and historical fact, Ragtime follows several seemingly unconnected characters. There is the “average” American family, only known as Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, Grandfather, and the little boy. The family lives in New York, in a three-story home at the crest of the Broadview Avenue Hill. Father owns a company that manufactures various “accoutrements of patriotism” such as flags, buntings, even fireworks. Next, we meet an immigrant family, also living in New York, sharing one room among the three of them – Mameh, Tateh, and The Little Girl. Tateh is an artist who tries to support his family as a peddler on the streets. Mameh and the little girl sew knee pants to make ends meet until they are informed that the little girl must attend school. Having lost the income the little girl provides, Mameh must find an alternative way to help her family survive. Other characters, both fictional and real, appear frequently throughout the book – a young African-American musician named Coalhouse Walker Jr. provides a detailed look at racial tensions in 1906. Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford are given fictional connections to the story loosely based on actual events of the time.

Fangirls’ Analysis:

December’s hostess chose this book because she just loves it. “I think that it is timelessly composed, and beautifully demonstrates what a reflection of any society should look like.” Club members voted for it because of an interest in historical fiction and its purported similarities to other works (i.e. Fiddler on the Roof).

What We Liked:

Doctorow’s writing style in Ragtime included simple, matter-of-fact sentences that were no less eloquent for their brevity. His words evoked powerful imagery and we appreciated his ability to let us see early 1900s America from varying perspectives. He allowed us to experience a story of working class success a la Harry Houdini. Through eyes of the unreliable narrator we see characters reaching for the typical “American Dream” and then watch the way those dreams shift and adapt to unexpected circumstances. During the discussion, several parallels were drawn to goings-on in the 1970s, when this book was being written, as well as current events (particularly regarding race and gender equality).

What We Didn’t Like:

While this book was enjoyed by most who read it, others found it difficult to get into. Those who had little interest in the historical aspects found their attentions wandering depending on the subject matter. A few members disliked the unknown narration and the fact that some characters were not given names.

This book bored a couple of members to tears but was largely enjoyed, even loved, by most.

Fangirl Rating: 4/5 stars

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