This book was required reading my sophomore year of high school, & it was then that I first fell in love with it. Ragtime is a historical novel that concerns real events of turn-of-the-century America (New York, primarily), and fictional ones, where the lives of real historical figures commingle with those of Doctorow's invention. "Real" characters include: Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, & the famous love triangle of Evelyn Nesbitt, millionaire Harry Thaw, & architect Stanford White (players in one of the original "crimes of the century"). But every character, every event, every place, every moment is treated lovingly here.
E.L. Doctorow's voice is unparalleled. He is master of the laconic, six- or seven-word sentence. Nothing flowery, just the facts. These terse bits of information concatenated one after the other absolutely carry the narrative. At times Ragtime reads like a telegram, or something coming off the AP wire. Perhaps that's how the reader comes to believe the story & believe in the characters so completely.
As a teenager, I was an unabashed fan of the character of Coalhouse Walker, a man served a heaping portion of injustice. I just loved the restraint he exercised in the face of the gross unfairness of life. He is a man who has been tested in his principles & though he is able to speak dispassionately about this, one can detect the violence underlying it. Doctorow writes, "He sat in the parlor with his arms folded and told the story in detail. There was no aggrieved tone in his voice, he recited calmly and objectively, as if he were describing something that had happened to someone else." Very cool, right? OK. But as an adult, the second time around with Ragtime, I now find myself contrasting Coalhouse to the character of Sarah, his fiancee, who Doctorow describes with these words: "She had no guile and could act only in total and helpless response to what she felt. If she loved she acted in love, if she was betrayed she was destroyed. These were the shining and dangerous facts of the life of an innocent." I'm certain that as a youth, I was callow in my dismissal of the character of Sarah. But what I come to understand today is that of she and Coalhouse, it is the former who is actually the braver of the two.
This novel stands the test of time, has lost nothing, and apparently gained a few things!