“[Jacob] Riis made color maps of Manhattan’s ethnic populations. Dull gray was for Jews-their favorite color, he said. Red was for the swarthy Italian. Blue for the thrifty German. Black for the African. Green for the Irishman. And yellow for the cat-clean Chinaman…Add dashes of color for Finns, Arabs, Greeks, and so on, and you have a crazy quilt, Riis cried, a crazy quilt of humanity!”
E. L. Doctorow’s love story to The United States at the turn of the century is itself a crazy quilt. Historical figures cross in and out of the plot paths of fictional characters, creating several threads that aren’t fully integrated into the plot as a whole. This goes on for the entire first half of the book, to the point that I wasn’t really sure who this book was actually about. Houdini? Sure, a little bit. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson? They show up in the mix. Or perhaps this book is about the fictional Tateh, a Yiddish immigrant, and his daughter? They show up quite a bit, but is the book about them, really?
I think, as much as this book could be about one specific character, it is really about America as a whole. The good and the bad. Ragtime is a historical fiction that strikes a balance between the nostalgic haze through which we view this period and the ugly, gritty reality of our history. It is about America’s history, but also all of the themes that have become synonymous with the American Dream; perseverance, melting pot society, abuse of power.
Most central to the plot is the nameless family, identified as just this,the family. Even the members of the family go unidentified. Father, mother, the boy, mother’s younger brother. The choice to make this family nameless is the most interesting device Doctorow employs in Ragtime. By doing this, and by (for the most part) having the members of the family do nothing to drive the plot, a thought begins to invade the reader (at least this one). America happens to us, we don’t happen to America. For the average citizen of this crazy quilt of humanity, it storms and rages around us, and beats us up, then tells us to get back on our feet again. Most of us aren’t Houdinis, Henry Fords, or J.P. Morgans. But, as is shown in this book, there is always the chance that we could be. It may just depend upon how much you’re willing to wager on that American Dream.