An unnamed family in Rochelle, New York faces upheaval when they become involved with racial turmoil during the turn of the 20th century. Mother, Father, and little boy (these characters don't have names in the book) are a well-to-do family living in Rochelle, New York in 1902. Soon after the story begins, Father leaves to go on the first exploration to Antarctica. Mother's younger brother begins pursuing the affections of Evelyn Nesbit, a celebrity and beauty queen. Evelyn becomes involved with an immigrant family living on the lower East Side in terrible poverty. Evelyn cares for their sick daughter during her regular visits to the family, followed secretly by Mother's Little Brother. Evelyn's relationship with the family deepens and she is invited to attend a communist meeting with them. At the event, the featured speaker recognizes Evelyn from the stage and publicly condemns her for trading on her sexuality to a capitalist society.
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Back at the family home, Mother finds a black baby buried alive in her family's back yard. She takes in the child, intending to care for it as her own, but soon the mother is discovered to be a local servant named Sarah. A piano player named Coalhouse Walker comes to the family house in New Rochelle. He impresses them with his ragtime piano music. He turns out to be the father of the baby they found buried in their yard, and he intends to marry Sarah. Sarah eventually accepts his proposal, but their wedding plans are subverted when Coalhouse is attacked by a group of firemen because he is a successful black man. He complains to the police, but they just arrest him because he stood up for himself. The wedding money goes toward finding Coalhouse legal representation, though lawyers are mostly unwilling to represent him.
Evelyn and the unstable Younger Brother begin frequenting each others' company. Little Brother begins to become radicalized through his association with Evelyn's communist contacts and begins experimenting with bomb-building. Meanwhile, the immigrant family that Evelyn loves so much leaves New York without her knowledge. About this time Father returns from his journey to find his town politically changed and his relationship with his wife altered. He feels sexually demoted and emotionally isolated.
After Coalhouse cannot acquire good legal counsel, Sarah tries to plead Coalhouse's case to the Vice President at a political event. She is struck and killed by a member of the secret service. With the help of Little Brother, Coalhouse retaliates by bombing the firehouse where the men who attacked him work. Mother and Father move to Atlantic City in the midst of the scandal that erupts. Coalhouse and his followers take over the house of J.P. Morgan, who is traveling. They keep hostages and make demands that law enforcement provide them with an escape vehicle. Coalhouse also insists that his followers go free. Father comes to town to help negotiate the deal, but when Coalhouse leaves the house the musician is immediately shot down by police. Now orphaned, Sarah and Coalhouse's daughter is raised by mother. Mother remarries a poor immigrant man following the death of her husband, unable to find love and happiness among those of her race and class.
Best part of story, including ending:
Ragtime is a very unpredictable story. The emotions of the day seem to mirror those that we experience in our society today. Or maybe that's just a good novel for you.
Best scene in story:
I enjoy Coalhouse's music making. His playing of the piano to awed audiences is a hard scene to write well, I imagine.
Opinion about the main character:
I like the family for what they represent, an old way bending (and breaking) under the pressures of the new way. Father seems like such a fossil, but mother is able to find herself amidst the turmoil.