Friday, July 21, 2006

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

 (Book Review)
I first heard about this book because it was mentioned in “U.S.!” By Chris Bachelder, another book I read recently. In “U.S.!”, there is a fictional scene in which Upton Sinclair and E.L. Doctorow meet to discuss their respective works, and Doctorow’s "Ragtime" is mentioned because of its fictional treatment of anarchist Emma Goldman.

Since I read Emma Goldman’s autobiography last summer, that was enough to get me interested in this book. And then I found out “Ragtime” was listed as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century by the Modern Library, and I thought this would be an opportunity to check another one of their books off my list and feel smugly superior to everyone else in the process. So when I walked into my local library to find this book on their display case, it was a foregone conclusion to check it out.

Although Emma Goldman does pop up several times in this book, its not “The Emma Goldman Book” by any means. Emma Goldman is but one of several historical characters who walk in and out of the book, sharing the stage with Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Zapapata, the archduke Franz Ferdinand, Booker T. Washington, Sigmund Freud, and many others.

In addition to these historical giants a lot of minor and forgotten historical figures also pop up in the novel, like Evelyn Nesbitt, who appearently at one time was all over the tabloid papers because of her part in a love triangle that ended in a sensational murder and media circus courtroom trial.

I felt like I knew Emma Goldman’s life well enough to easily distinguish which parts of her story were fictional and which were real. (In fact, I’m pretty sure Doctorow must have also read Goldman’s autobiography, because most of Goldman’s biographical details seem lifted from Goldman’s own account). But for the rest of these characters I was constantly running back and forth to Wikipedia to find out what was true and what was not. This is a book that mixes history with fiction, and if you’re a history nerd like me you can’t sleep at night until you sort out what is true and what isn’t. So be forewarned.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that this book has been made into both a film and a Broadway musical. It’s a good book, but not all good books translate into good movies, and this book in particular doesn’t seem to have much of a linear plot. It wouldn’t have been my first choice to convert into the medium of drama, but I’ve not seen either the film or the musical, so I don’t know how they handled it.

Stylistically this book was a bit of a struggle for me at the beginning, but got progressively easier to read as I got into it. The story also starts out slowly, but really picks up a lot of speed in the last 100 pages.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
A swagman is an old Australian term describing an underclass of transient temporary workers, who travelled by foot from farm to farm carrying the traditional swag. A romanticised figure, the swagman remains famous through the song "Waltzing Matilda", by Banjo Paterson, which details a swagman who turns to stealing a sheep from the local squatter.

Link of the Day
I Was Israel’s Dupe By TOM HAYDEN
Hayden Revisits Sharon’s 1982 Attack on Beirut and His and Fonda’s Trip of Shame

1 comment:

Dozer said...

Cool facts about a swagman. Very interesting. :)