Study Guide

Ragtime

Ragtime Summary

Welcome to the early 1900s in New Rochelle, New York! There are a lot of characters to meet right off the bat, so sit back and make yourself comfortable. First there's an upper middle class family that includes Father, Mother, Grandfather, Mother's Younger Brother and Little Boy. Yes, those are there names. We wonder just how much taunting they went through on the playground.

Then there's Evelyn Nesbit, a famous model who Mother's Younger Brother is obsessed with. There's Mameh, Tateh and Little Girl, a Jewish family trying to make ends meet on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. "Mameh" and "Tateh" mean "Mommy" and "Daddy" in Yiddish: we assumed that they received their fair share of schoolyard taunting as well.

Oh, and don't forget famous folks like J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford and Harry Houdini, the celebrated escape artist. They're going to figure in this story too.

It all begins in the summer, as Harry Houdini's car crashes in front of the upper middle class family's house. Houdini sticks around awhile and drinks some lemonade, before getting a cryptic message from Little Boy to "warn the Duke."

In the meantime, Evelyn Nesbit is preparing for the trial of her husband. You see, he killed her former lover, the architect Stanford White. Bored, Evelyn tours the Lower East Side, where she meets Tateh and Little Girl. Mameh's already out of the picture, because she slept with her employer to help pay the rent. Tateh kicked her to the curb, which we don't think is terribly kind of him.

Evelyn becomes obsessed with Little Girl and Tateh, who introduces her to Emma Goldman, the famous political activist. While Emma Goldman's giving Evelyn a massage, Mother's Younger Brother spies on them, but can't hide his presence for long. Despite the fact that he's basically a stalker, Evelyn starts dating him.

Whew, got all that? Because now it really starts to get interesting. While Father's away at the North Pole on an expedition, Mother discovers a newborn black baby in the backyard. Rather than press charges against the baby's mother, Sarah, Mother lets her move in. Soon Coalhouse Walker Jr. (the baby's father and a Harlem musician) comes calling but Sarah won't see him. At least at first.

After playing hard to get for a while she comes around, and she and Coalhouse plan to get married. While all this is happening Father returns from the North Pole, Tateh and his daughter flee to New York, and Evelyn Nesbit ends her affair with Mother's Younger Brother.

The real story now though is about Coalhouse and Sarah, as things take a turn for the worse. One day, after leaving Sarah, Coalhouse is harassed by a local firehouse. They won't let him pass in his nice car without paying a toll, something Coalhouse refuses to do. He won't back down either, especially after his car is destroyed. Worse yet, he won't marry Sarah until the whole thing's resolved. Uh oh.

Upset that Coalhouse can't get justice and won't marry her until he does, Sarah goes to get help from the Vice President (yup, the Vice President), who just happens to be in town. The Secret Service doesn't take kindly to her approaching him, and they smack her in the chest with the butt of a rifle. Before you know it, Sarah's in a hospital dying, with Coalhouse by her side... and revenge on his mind.

What does Coalhouse do? For starters, he destroys the volunteer firehouse, killing four firemen in the process. But Coalhouse is just getting started. He's got a gang now, including Mother's Younger Brother, and they've got big plans, including taking over J.P. Morgan's library. In the meantime they blow up a police station, with Mother's Younger Brother's help.

The upper middle class family, plus Sarah and the baby, all go to Atlantic City to escape the media attention caused by Coalhouse. There they meet up with Tateh and Little Girl. Tateh is now a movie director, having sold an idea for a movie book to Franklin Novelty Co., and Little Girl has grown up. Right away there's a special bond between Little Girl and Little Boy, and... between Tateh and Mother, who's getting tired of Father.

As the story builds to its climax, Coalhouse and his gang carry through on their plan to take over J.P. Morgan's library, holding the library's contents for ransom until their demands are met. Booker T. Washington and Father both help in the negotiations but Coalhouse is ultimately shot down by a trigger-happy police department.

In the aftermath, Mother's Younger Brother flees to the wars in Mexico, where he's later killed. Father dies aboard the Lusitania during World War I. And lastly, Mother and Tateh get married and end up living in California with their children and Sarah and Coalhouse's orphaned child. At least there's one happy ending, right?

  • Chapter 1

    It's a summer day in New Rochelle, New York, in the early 1900s. An upper-middle class family —Father, Mother, Grandfather, and Little Boy—are hanging out in a home Father built back in 1902. Mother's Younger Brother walks on the beach, head over heels for a famous model named Evelyn Nesbit, whose husband just shot her former lover, the architect Stanford White. Yikes, juicy gossip. We might think twice about dating a lady with a homicidal husband, though…

    Little Boy watches a chauffeured car approach the house and then crash into telephone pole. Out steps the famous escape artist, Harry Houdini. He visits with the family and does some tricks. Then he heads off, but not before he's told by the Little Boy to "warn the Duke." Whoa, what's that supposed to mean? You'll find out.

  • Chapter 2

    • We learn—whoops—Houdini's unexpected visit interrupted Father and Mother having sex.
    • Father gets a big send off at the train station, and sets off with Peary for the Arctic aboard a ship called the Roosevelt.
    • Sailing toward the open sea, the Roosevelt passes a boat full of immigrants, which makes Father sad even though immigrants like to be patriotic. (Father sells patriotic stuff, like flags and fireworks.)
  • Chapter 3

    • Speaking of immigrants, people don't like 'em in New York. They're described as stinking and lazy. Hey, that's not particularly nice.
    • We meet Mameh, Tateh and their Little Girl. Mameh and Tateh are Yiddish for Mother and Father, and Little Girl is... well, you get the idea. Mameh and Little Girl work all day long sewing, while Tateh works in the street. When Tateh sees the places rich people live in, he gets angry. No big surprise considering his whole family basically lives in a single room.
    • Little Girl has to enroll in school, and the family loses her income and struggles to pay the rent. They're so desperate that Mameh lets her boss have his way with her for extra money.
    • Jacob Riis, the newspaper reporter, tries to bring attention to the condition of the slums where immigrants like Mameh and Tateh live, but no one pays much attention. During the summer heat wave, horses lie dead in the street while rats eat away at them, and the tenements stink of fried fish. Not exactly Paradise.
  • Chapter 4

    • During a heatwave it's way nicer to be in the country than in the city, so some politicians host a party out in the boondocks. This party has baseball, beer and fireworks. Fireworks are Mother's Younger Brother's only passion. Well, that's not exactly true: he also likes that model Evelyn Nesbit.
    • Evelyn's husband Harry K. Thaw has just shot and killed her former lover Stanford White. So she's living in a hotel in New York rehearsing her testimony for the trial. She's doing this even though Harry used to beat her before their marriage.
    • Harry's in jail at the Tombs, but the lucky guy, still gets his meals catered in. Evelyn visits regularly, sometimes performing sexual acts on him. She tells the reporters he's innocent but is secretly receiving two hundred thousand dollars for her testimony.
    • She grew up in a coal town and thinks she's doing pretty well for herself now. After all, $200K isn't exactly peanuts. That would be approximately five million bucks today.
    • Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, the novelist Theodore Dreiser obsesses over his bad reviews, and how he should set up his chair.
  • Chapter 5

    • Harry Houdini makes a celebrity visit to the Tombs to test some new leg iron. He escapes easily. Meanwhile that other Harry—Harry K. Thaw, Evelyn's husband and the guy who killed Stanford White—watches from a nearby cell. He strips naked as well and makes lewd gestures from his cell. Ew, this guy sucks.
    • Houdini refuses to perform at a party for a wealthy socialite, because the rich make him uncomfortable. After agreeing when they offer more money, he instead does his act for the other performers—freaks and circus folks—and splits. What's up, Houdini: we always knew you were cool.
    • We're told Sigmund Freud has just arrived in America. Freud is an alienist—which is what people called psychiatrists back then—but the public thinks of him as a German sexologist. Which means they think he's uber-kinky.
  • Chapter 6

    • Doesn't everyone like a vacation to America? Not Freud. Traveling with his disciples Jung and Ferenczi, he thinks New York doesn't have enough bathrooms and is too noisy. Sounds like NYC today: some things never change.
    • Down on the Lower East Side, Freud watches a street artist at work (Tateh) as he makes a miniature street portrait of a beautiful woman (Evelyn) using only scissors and paper. Jung notices Little Girl standing behind Tateh.
    • Freud tours Coney Island and Niagara Falls. When he returns to Vienna he tells a friend that America is a huge mistake.
    • It's not a good time to work in a factory, coal or tobacco fields in America. Workers have no rights. Oh, and kids work too. The whole system is pretty dang corrupt.
    • Meanwhile, the very rich hold parties in which they mock the working class, pretending to be meat packers or coal miners. Talk about adding insult to injury.
  • Chapter 7

    • Evelyn Nesbit has her own encounter with Tateh and Little Girl, who apparently is so pretty no one can take their eyes off her. In fact, Tateh keeps her tethered to him, because little girls can get kidnapped and sold into slavery.
    • Tateh works as a silhouette artist, cutting paper portraits. He's only 32 years old, but his hair turned white when he learned about Mameh offering herself to her boss for extra money. So he looks a lot older.
    • He also threw Mameh out and mourns her as if she were dead. Not very fair to Mameh.
    • Evelyn takes an interest in Little Girl and over the next several weeks gets her own and Little Girl's silhouette portrait done many times. During these portraits she notices Mother's Younger Brother watching her. Okay, stalking her.
    • One day Evelyn can't find Tateh and Little Girl and tracks them down to their flat, where she discovers Little Girl has a fever. Despite Tateh's objections, she stays with the child and bathes the girl while Tateh works.
    • Evelyn thinks about kidnapping Little Girl and giving her a better life, but decides to spend her afternoons at Tateh's instead. She sews and lives like a woman in the Jewish slums, before being picked up every day by her chauffeur.
  • Chapter 8

    • Workers of the world, unite! Evelyn goes with Tateh and Little Girl to a socialist rally. At the meeting we're introduced to the famous socialist and anarchist Emma Goldman, who's giving a big speech.
    • During her speech, Emma recognizes Evelyn Nesbit. Knowing Evelyn's history, she makes comments comparing marriage with prostitution.
    • The police show up and a riot breaks out. Tateh understands Emma's comments about Evelyn and takes off, disgusted with her. Luckily, Emma rescues Evelyn and takes her to a local boardinghouse. Mother's Younger Brother, the stalker, follows them there.
    • Emma talks with Evelyn about socialist ideas, before getting her to take off her clothes and agree to a massage. In the closet, Mother's Younger Brother relieves himself sexually, but can't stay in the closet as he climaxes. Oh, eww. Ewwwww.
  • Chapter 9

    • Mother waits to hear from her Younger Brother, unaware that's he's off in a closet watching Evelyn Nesbit get a massage. She basically thinks he's lonely and weird.
    • We learn about Mother's life, which hasn't been all that bad: grew up in Ohio, Dad (Grandfather) was a professor of Greek and Latin, and she married Father after meeting him on a sales trip. Then she brought him and her younger brother to live with her in New Rochelle.
    • Worried about the business and Father being away, Mother takes a walk in the garden. Little Boy is back there too, with a letter Father sent from the Arctic that's all greasy with whale oil.
    • Walking through the garden, Mother hears a noise and discovers a black baby buried there. Somehow the baby is still alive. She rescues it and calls the cops.
    • The police figure out who the mother is, but instead of pursuing charges for attempted murder, agree to let Mother take the woman and the baby in.
    • Late that night Little Boy wakes up and finds Mother sitting by the bed. She kisses him.
  • Chapter 10

    • We join Father on his expedition with Peary to the South Pole. We learn of the attitudes of Peary and his men toward the Eskimos, who they say are "like children" and should be treated as such. Gross, dude.
    • Father agrees with Peary's assessment of the Eskimos. He watches the women strip off their clothes and run screaming onto the ice, trying to kill themselves. He watches the Eskimo men and women have intercourse without trying to hide it, and is amazed at the way the women participate. He thinks of his own wife back home and the quiet way she acts during sex.
    • Father catches birds with the Eskimos and learns you can kill an auklet simply by tapping it on its breast.
    • The expedition slogs forward over the ice, breaking trail with pickaxes as they make their way toward the Pole.
    • Father has given Peary an American flag to mark the spot of the Pole. The trip has been rough on Father. Parts of his body freeze too easily, and he is one of the weaker members of the expedition.
    • On the day when he is closest to the Pole, Peary chooses the best Eskimo guides and his assistant, Matthew Henson, to go forward and mark the actual spot. The rest stay behind or, like Father, are already back on the ship.
    • Peary marks the spot of the Pole and plants the flag. In the picture, the men's faces are indistinguishable because of the bright sun and snow.
  • Chapter 11

    • We're told America is "one big farting country." Many of the rich are fat and drink and eat great amounts of food. When William Howard Taft is elected President of the United States (weighing 332 pounds), his great girth weighs the country down. People don't want to look like him, and from now on the rich will begin trying to be slim rather than fat.
    • Evelyn Nesbit is thin, and so is her new lover, Mother's Younger Brother. She can't resist his attraction to her, and they spend most of their time making love to each other. When they're not making love, they're looking for Tateh and his little girl, though they can't find them.
    • At Harry K. Thaw's trial, Evelyn testifies as she's been paid to do.
    • Evelyn realizes that Harry might indeed love her. Emma tells her not to overestimate her role in the relationship between Stanford and Harry.
    • The trial has a hung jury and the case goes to court again, after which Harry is sent to a hospital for the criminally insane. Evelyn tries to negotiate a divorce settlement of one million bucks, a lot of money back then, but pictures of Evelyn and Mother's Younger Brother surface and she only gets twenty-five thousand. Oops.
    • Evelyn becomes bored with Mother's Younger Brother. She gives money to Emma's magazine, called Mother Earth, supports various radical causes, and misses what her life was like when she was around men like Stanford White.
  • Chapter 12

    • We're told that, after the riot at the Emma Goldman speech, Tateh decides to leave New York City. He gets on a train with his little girl, not knowing where he's going.
    • They travel north, sleep in a park and end up in New Rochelle, where they pass Mother and Little Boy, and Little Boy and Little Girl stare into each other's eyes.
    • Tateh and Little Girl get on a streetcar and go all the way to Connecticut. From there they travel to Springfield, Massachusetts. For the first time in a long while Tateh is happy.
  • Chapter 13

    • Train tracks are being laid throughout the Northeast, including a new subway line from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The work is dangerous, and Houdini visits one of the "sandhogs" (men who dig these tunnels) after the man survives one of the numerous blowout explosions that occur so often.
    • The family doesn't like Houdini's intrusion, and Houdini walks the streets in humiliation afterwards. We learn of Houdini's many exploits, such as escaping from a packing case that's been lowered into the Detroit River.
    • Houdini does a benefit for retired magicians and theater folk and then, feeling unsatisfied, leaves for a European tour. He kisses his mother goodbye before he leaves, nearly unable to leave her.
    • After one of his shows, Houdini sees a demonstration of a French-made flying machine. He buys his own and proceeds to get taught how to fly it. He stays in the air as long as ten to twelve minutes during each flight. He begins to give lectures on the art of flying to young German military officers.
    • One day after a flight Houdini meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Not knowing who he is, Ferdinand falsely congratulates Houdini on the invention of the aeroplane.
  • Chapter 14

    • Father returns to a New Rochelle that's changed greatly in his absence. He's been gone a long time, too long, he and Mother both think.
    • For starters, the housemaid (who's cleaning the house with an "electric suction device") doesn't really know her place anymore. Then there's the colored woman and her baby. And Mother is not as shy about sex as she was. She's also more capable, having run the business in Father's absence.
    • The Arctic has aged and changed Father. He's always cold. Plus he feels the shame of having slept with an Eskimo woman while he was away.
    • Meanwhile, Little Boy is not so little now, having grown out of his baby fat. Mother's Younger Brother is stranger than ever, spending all his time designing fireworks. These fireworks include the new Cherry Bomb, which frightens Father.
    • Mother's Younger Brother has also been left by Evelyn Nesbit and is crazy with grief. One morning he throws away all his mementos of her, including a bunch of silhouette portraits, which Little Boy rescues.
  • Chapter 15

    • Little Boy looks over the silhouettes he's rescued from Mother's Younger Brother, not realizing they are of the same Little Girl he met on the street one day.
    • We learn that the boy often collects things and roams around the house, lost in daydreams. He sits with Grandfather and listens to the old man tell stories, and thinks of Grandfather as a discarded treasure.
    • The Little Boy possibly has psychic abilities, as he has the ability to make things move without touching them.
    • The boy is fascinated with motion picture shows. He also plays the same record endlessly on the Victrola. Sometimes he studies himself in the mirror, trying to see how he is changing. Wanting to get her son out of the house, Mother takes the boy ice-skating with her younger brother.
  • Chapter 16

    • Tateh and his daughter are living in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where Tateh makes under six bucks a week at a textile mill. Little Girl is growing up into a woman, which worries Tateh, since there is no woman there to help her.
    • There's a strike at the textile mill. Tateh and the girl starve with no money. They picket with other workers. There's violence.
    • Tateh creates posters for the marches. One night he creates a flipbook, a series of images that move like a movie when you flip the pages.
    • The strike continues. Tateh agrees to send his daughter to a safe family in Philadelphia.
    • At the train station, a police action prevents the children from leaving and a riot begins. The girl gets away. Tateh finds her onboard the train and they escape on the train to Philadelphia.
  • Chapter 17

    • Onboard the train, a doctor tends to Tateh's injuries. In Philadelphia Tateh and his daughter sleep on a bench in the station.
    • In the morning, Tateh sees that they will win the strike, but is discouraged. Even winning still means he and his daughter will be poor.
    • He decides to quit the textile mills. They walk the streets of Philadelphia and come to the Franklin Novelty Company store, full of things like magic tricks and exploding eggs. Tateh sells his flipbook to the company for twenty-five dollars, with an agreement for four more books at twenty-five dollars each. They'll call them movie books.
  • Chapter 18

    • We're introduced to Henry Ford and his Model T, another example of American ingenuity. Ford's invention is the assembly line, which has made the car more affordable. Ford got the idea from watching cows in a slaughterhouse.
    • Ford perfects the assembly line so that each month it can produce 3,000 cars, which he sells to countless Americans. He grows rich, and we're told he'll live a long and active life.
  • Chapter 19

    • We learn about J.P. Morgan, who ranks even higher than Ford at the top of American business. We see Morgan come to work, with this white moustache and gold-headed cane. At his desk, Morgan asks an aide to set up a meeting with Ford.
    • Morgan thinks that Ford must be someone as mighty as himself. He's tired of meeting other men that don't match up. He thinks Ford will.
    • We're told that the only human thing about Morgan is his giant red nose, an affliction he's had since he was a young man.
    • We learn of a dinner party at which Morgan found the most powerful men in America to be "horse's asses" (he thought they were dumb and full of themselves).
    • We learn that Morgan spends six months a year in Europe, collecting European paintings, artifacts and other treasures. These he brings back to America.
    • In Egypt, Morgan decides that there is a sacred tribe of men who are born in every generation to assist mankind. Naturally, he decides he is a member of this tribe. He thinks Ford is too, and even thinks that Ford bears a resemblance to Seti I, one of the great pharaohs of Egypt.
  • Chapter 20

    • Ford comes to visit Morgan at his home on Madison Avenue. Adjoining the home is the Morgan Library, which holds the art and artifacts Morgan sends home on his travels.
    • Morgan tries to speak to Ford of his high minded ideas. Ford responds with an anti-Semitic remark.
    • Morgan talks about reincarnation. Ford says he agrees with reincarnation, based on a Franklin Novelty Company book he purchased for twenty-five cents. He tells Morgan he could have learned the same things without spending all that money.
    • The two men form "The Pyramid," a secret club which believes in reincarnation and which only has two members—themselves.
  • Chapter 21

    • Ancient Egypt is in fashion. The Boy studies the hieroglyphic alphabet, and imagines the black woman living in their attic to be a Nubian princess.
    • A Negro man drives past the house in a fancy car. He tells the Boy he's looking for the woman in the attic: Sarah.
    • The man comes to the back door and speaks to Mother, but Sarah will not see him. The man's name is Coalhouse Walker, and he begins to come every Sunday to call on Sarah.
    • The family invites Coalhouse for tea. He tells them he is a musician. They invite him to play, and, after telling them the piano is badly out of tune, he plays "Wall Street Rag."
    • He then plays "Maple Leaf Rag," also composed by Scott Joplin. Father asks Coalhouse if he knows any "coon songs," which Coalhouse refuses to play based on the fact that they're offensive. He then leaves, still not having seen Sarah.
    • Coalhouse continues to visit weekly, bringing gifts for Sarah and the child. Father is unsure about Coalhouse, since he doesn't "act or talk like a colored man." He doesn't "know his place," according to Father.
    • After many weeks, Sarah decides to see Coalhouse. He arrives in his shiny automobile and takes her and the baby off for a drive. During the drive he proposes and she accepts.
  • Chapter 22

    • Mother's Younger Brother meets with soldiers and decides to build them better weapons and bombs. He has a few affairs with women, and often wanders the city at night.
    • He finds the offices of Emma Goldman's magazine Mother Earth. Emma remembers him, and invites him to a meeting at Cooper Union.
    • The meeting is in support of the Mexican Revolution. There's talk of a need for guns and ammo. Afterwards at a party Emma tries to get Mother's Younger Brother to forget about Evelyn, to live his life and be free.
    • Younger Brother leaves feeling overwhelmed and confused. On the way back to New Rochelle he stands between the train cars, looking up at the moon.
  • Chapter 23

    • One Sunday afternoon Coalhouse leaves Sarah to drive back to New York. On the way back he has to pass a volunteer firehouse.
    • The volunteers tell Coalhouse he's driving on a private road and that he has to pay toll. The firehouse Chief arrives and also tells Coalhouse to pay the toll, which is twenty-five dollars.
    • Coalhouse runs off to get a policeman, who tells him the volunteers are just messing with him. Coalhouse goes back to his car and finds a tear in the top and a pile of human poop in the back seat.
    • The police arrive. The volunteers say the car was blocking the firehouse. The police tell Coalhouse to forget the whole thing and be on his way. Coalhouse refuses, demanding his car be repaired.
    • Coalhouse is arrested. Father comes to the police station to post bail, and the next day, Coalhouse comes to the house and explains the incident to Father, Mother and Younger Brother. Coalhouse pays back Father and says he intends to get a lawyer.
    • The next day Younger Brother goes to the firehouse, where he sees that the car has now been pushed into the mud and "thoroughly vandalized."
  • Chapter 24

    • The visit to the car fills Younger Brother with rage. He's on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and despises his complacent life in New Rochelle with Mother and Father.
    • Coalhouse decides to pursue a lawsuit against the Emerald Isle Engine Company, but cannot find an attorney to represent him, even with Father's help. He tries to represent himself, to no avail. He signs a complaint at City Hall and is laughed at.
    • We're told Coalhouse's name will come to symbolize murder and arson. Father and Younger Brother argue about Coalhouse and his stubbornness.
    • Sarah tells Younger Brother that Coalhouse will not marry her until his car is returned exactly as it was.
  • Chapter 25

    • Father has decided to go and talk to the Emerald Isle Engine Company, but before he can, Sarah tries to speak to Taft's Vice President, who is visiting New Rochelle.
    • At the hotel, the secret service mistake her for an assassin. She's struck with the butt of a rifle and taken to jail, where she spends the night coughing up blood.
    • The next morning Sarah is taken to the hospital. She develops pneumonia. Coalhouse is located and comes to her bedside, and in a few days Sarah is dead.
  • Chapter 26

    • Sarah's funeral is held in Harlem. Coalhouse pays for it with the money he was saving for their wedding.
    • A band plays dirges as the funeral procession crosses the East River into Brooklyn, where she is buried.
  • Chapter 27

    • Spring arrives. Grandfather cracks his pelvis, from which he never recovers. Harry K. Thaw escapes to Canada, comes back to the U.S. and is captured.
    • Meanwhile Harry Houdini mourns his mother, who has died while he was in Europe. He's in bad shape. She called out for him moments before her death, but he wasn't there. He's sure she needed to tell him something.
    • Houdini becomes obsessed with mediums and clairvoyants, wondering if he can speak with his mother one last time. He hires a detective agency to find the frauds pretending to contact the dead.
    • He decides to start working again, and pushes every show to the limit. People think he has a death wish. When an explosion occurs nearby at the end of a show, the audience flees in terror.
  • Chapter 28

    • The explosion has happened at the Emerald Isle station house. Four men are dead. Other volunteers are in the hospital with severe burns.
    • We're told that an alarm was rung at 10:03, sending the men to hitch up the steam engine. When they exited the station house, men were waiting with guns and shot them. The building then burned and the steam boiler exploded.
    • Father learns the next day what happened. In the paper the suspect is listed as an unidentified Negro male, who demanded to know where the Chief was.
    • Father and Mother know it was Coalhouse. Father decides that the next day he'll go to tell the police what they know, including the fact that they have Coalhouse's bastard baby.
    • Letters arrive at the offices of the local newspapers from Coalhouse. In the letters he demands the Chief be handed over to him. Otherwise, he promises to keep burning down firehouses and killing firemen.
    • Father goes to City Hall to do what he can.
  • Chapter 29

    • We learn of Father's past. Born in White Plains, New York, he's an only child. As a young man he invested the few dollars he had in a fireworks company and then bought a flag-manufacturing firm. He also fought with the Army in the Philippines.
    • Father feels right in going to the police. He tries to explain Coalhouse's actions. He's asked if Coalhouse will strike again and says he thinks he will. The police begin looking for Coalhouse in Harlem.
    • Father arrives at the station to find Chief Conklin, who stinks of whiskey. Father is disgusted by him. The police tease the Chief, telling him they should just hand him over. A guard is placed at Father's house.
    • One week after the Emerald Isle explosion, a fire station in the West End is blown up. A policeman is given a letter and told it should be published in the paper.
    • The story makes front pages across the country. Negroes in the city hide for fear of their lives. The letter that is published in the papers demands that the auto be returned in its original condition, and is signed: Coalhouse Walker, President, Provisional American Government.
    • A picture of Coalhouse in St. Louis is found and reprinted in all the papers, and a manhunt begins. Father and Mother are hounded by the press.
    • Father feels guilty and takes his son to see a baseball game. Mother thinks to herself that Father is an idiot, and wonders how she can feel that way about her husband.
  • Chapter 30

    • Father and the Boy go to see the New York Giants play under their legendary manager, John McGraw.
    • Father remembers the gentlemanly baseball games he played at Harvard. He feels annoyed at the game and his memories. Meanwhile he watches a fool (a mascot for the Giants). The boy catches a fly ball and returns the ball to the fool, whose name is Charles Victor Faust.
    • Later, we're told, the players will become bored with Faust. No longer a good luck charm for the team, he'll be sent off to an insane asylum, where he'll die months later.
  • Chapter 31

    • Father arrives home with the boy, feeling more himself than he has in awhile. At home they discover Sarah's son has begun to walk.
    • Father and Mother discuss getting away. They make love that night and decide to take the family to Atlantic City until everything with Coalhouse blows over.
    • Coalhouse's car is recovered from the pond. There are cries for Chief Conklin to leave town. State militia patrols the streets. In the midst of all this the family catches an early morning train to Atlantic City.
  • Chapter 32

    • Mother leaves a note for Younger Brother when they leave, which we learn will never be claimed.
    • Younger Brother, after the first attack on the firehouse, has gone and found Coalhouse and told him he knows how to make bombs. His career as an outlaw and revolutionary has begun.
    • Younger Brother shaves his moustache and shaves his head. He blackens his face and hands with burnt cork. He makes the three package bombs used in a West End blast, proving his worth to Coalhouse's gang.
    • We're told this info comes from a journal Younger Brother kept from the time he arrived in Harlem until his death in Mexico more than a year later. In the journal Younger Brother says there were five in the gang besides himself and Coalhouse, and that Coalhouse was a great leader.
    • They steal cars for the attacks they make on the firehouses. After his picture appears in the paper, Coalhouse shaves his head and moustache.
    • Coalhouse and his gang get word that the car has been pulled from the pond, and that Chief Conklin has fled town. The men discuss plans for something "terrible," so that no ever messes with a black man around there again.
  • Chapter 33

    • Summer in Atlantic City. The family tries to enjoy themselves.
    • After swimming, everyone retires to their rooms, and sometimes Father and Mother make love. Though she has lost faith in Father, there are moments when she loves him as she used to.
    • Mother feels safe in Atlantic City. She also feels, for the first time, that Sarah's child is safe. Some nights Mother and Father take a ride in wicker chair pushed along by a porter or their son.
    • One night the family hears a band playing Ragtime music. Mother thinks of her Younger Brother. She feels she has let him down, especially in the arguments between him and Father about Coalhouse. She sees Coalhouse in the faces of each band member.
    • Mother starts to notice the way she attracts other men. The most interesting man to Mother is a flamboyant man who calls himself Baron Ashkenazy. He joins Father, Mother and the Boy one night for dinner and brings his daughter. The Baron explains she is quiet because she lost her mother when she was young. He tells them he makes movies.
    • Across the table, Mother looks at her son and the Baron's daughter, and imagines them in a make-believe wedding.
  • Chapter 34

    • In Atlantic City, Mother and Father and the Boy meet each day with Baron Ashkenazy and his daughter, who we now know is actually Tateh and his daughter.
    • Tateh has invented an apparatus that led to him becoming a partner with the Franklin Novelty Company. Then he went into film, invented his new title and colored his hair and beard black to look young again.
    • The boy and girl spend their days together. They play in the dunes and on the beach and in the surf. They bury each other in the sand.
    • In the evening they sometimes go with their parents to the boardwalk. They are inseparable.
    • One day they take shelter beneath a boardwalk and watch a storm. Mother and Tateh come out to look for them, and cry and laugh when they find them. Tateh notices how beautiful Mother is.
    • Father sleeps through the incident. He hasn't been sleeping at night. He is bored at the beach and in the evenings he plays billiards.
    • The morning after the storm, there is a story in the paper. Coalhouse and his gang have broken into J.P. Morgan's Library and are holding the Morgan treasures for ransom. Father takes a call from the District Attorney's office in Manhattan and then takes the train back, alone.
  • Chapter 35

    • From Younger Brother's journal we learn that the original plan was to take Morgan hostage in order to flush Conklin out. The gang picked the wrong place—Morgan's library instead of his home.
    • J.P. Morgan is not at home, sailing for Rome. His company can't reach him for instructions, so they cordon off the street. A grenade thrown by Younger Brother has left a large hole in the street and blown out windows.
    • The police set up headquarters in a brownstone across the street from the library. The Police Commissioner, Rhinelander Waldo, and the State District Attorney, Charles S. Whitman, are both present. Whitman is thought of as a potential Governor or President.
    • Whitman calls for the architectural plans of the library. A man is sent to the garden next to the library to see if he can tell how many men are in the library. The man is killed when a bomb goes off and Whitman and the police realize the place is mined.
  • Chapter 36

    • Whitman meets with advisers. A colonel in the militia urges military action, and the library curator argues against it, considering the number of priceless objects inside.
    • Whitman takes a megaphone and calls out Coalhouse. A short time later an antique tankard is thrown out a window. Inside the tankard is a piece of paper with a phone number to call.
    • Whitman calls Coalhouse, who says his demands are the same: His car returned in the same condition, and Conklin. Whitman tells Coalhouse he can't give him Conklin. Coalhouse says they have twenty-four hours and then hangs up.
    • Whitman has Emma Goldman arrested, who gives a speech supporting Coalhouse, though she doesn't know that Younger Brother is part of his gang. She denies any involvement.
    • The famous black educator Booker T. Washington is in town, and is said to have denounced Walker. Whitman asks Washington to come and negotiate with Coalhouse, and Washington accepts.
  • Chapter 37

    • We learn about Booker T. Washington. He's the most famous black man in the country, and the founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He believes in peaceful progress for African-Americans. He has been endorsed by four Presidents and has an honorary degree from Harvard.
    • Washington arrives and enters the library. He sees everything is wired for demolition. He sees Younger Brother and realizes he is a white man in black face. He meets Coalhouse and tells him how far he has set back progress for African-Americans.
    • Coalhouse tells Washington that they can serve their race and get respect, which upsets Washington so much he nearly faints. Washington again tells him to come out with him. Coalhouse says he will… if Chief Conklin brings a restored automobile.
    • Coalhouse has modified his demands, no longer asking for Conklin's life, but Washington doesn't understand. He gets up and leaves.
  • Chapter 38

    • Washington tells the press that the entire library is a bomb ready to go off at any moment. Then he phones other black leaders and tells them to come and demonstrate in opposition to Coalhouse.
    • Father arrives and understands that Coalhouse has modified his demands. He tells Whitman.
    • A telegram arrives from Morgan which says they should give Coalhouse his car and then hang him. Father tells Whitman he can save face by saying that Morgan said to give him the car. A plan is put into place to get the car. Whitman sends in Father to further negotiate with Coalhouse.
    • In the Library, Father sees Younger Brother and nearly faints. He negotiates with Coalhouse and Whitman puts out a search for Chief Conklin, who is brought to the brownstone in less than an hour.
    • Father brings the terms to the library. Conklin will restore the car in full view of everyone in the middle of the street. In exchange, the men will give up and have full rights and privileges under the law.
    • Coalhouse says he will surrender himself but that the gang must be given full passage and amnesty. The gang argues but Coalhouse says, since none of them are known by name, they can go back to normal lives. Younger Brother tells Coalhouse he's betrayed them.
    • Coalhouse understand that this means he will die, but he says he died the minute Sarah did. Father tells Whitman about Coalhouse's demands. Whitman drinks several whiskeys in response.
    • He says they'll tail the car with the gang in it, but Father says they'll have a hostage—himself.
    • Whitman agrees to Coalhouse's demands.
  • Chapter 39

    • Fire Chief Conklin, under the direction of two mechanics, repairs the Ford. It takes all day. During this time the gang tries to reason with Coalhouse, but he won't listen.
    • Father, now a hostage, talks with Younger Brother and asks what he should tell Mother. Younger Brother says he can't tell Father because Father is self-deluded and an oppressor of humanity. They argue and then Younger Brother leaves, saying that neither Father nor Mother will see him again, though he loves and admires his sister.
    • When they are set to leave, Father is left behind. Mother's Younger Brother will be the hostage, now that he's wiped off his black face, since—as Coalhouse says—one white face looks like another.
    • The gang exits and drives off in the Model T, leaving Father and Coalhouse behind.
  • Chapter 40

    • Coalhouse emerges from the library. He is shot in the street by the police, who say he ran.
    • The gang spreads out into New York. Younger Brother takes the car and drives all the way to Mexico. There he joins up with Pancho Villa and later Zapata. For a year he leads guerilla raids and grows deaf from the bombings. In a skirmish with government troops he is killed.
    • Woodrow Wilson is now President. World War I is coming. The world is changing in art and science. J.P. Morgan notices it all as he travels Europe. He thinks the royal families are inbred and idiotic.
    • Morgan continues to Egypt, looking for a place to build his very own pyramid. He is allowed to spend the night in one of the Great Pyramids at Giza by himself. During the night he dreams he is a peddler in ancient times. He awakens to bedbugs.
    • Morgan leaves the Pyramids in the morning, passing by the Great Sphinx. The New York Giants baseball team are there on a world tour. John McGraw comes over to pay his respects. Morgan flees to his boat. Not long afterward, he dies, still convinced he'll be reincarnated.
    • In Sarajevo, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie escape a bombing, only to both be assassinated by a young Serbian patriot. Back in America, Harry Houdini reads about it and remembers meeting the Archduke.
    • After reading the paper, Houdini goes to Times Square, where he performs the trick of escaping from a straitjacket twelve stories in the air.
    • While he is hanging upside down, Houdini remembers the image of a boy looking at himself in the brass headlamp of an automobile. This is the scene from the beginning of the book.
    • We learn that Houdini might have gone back to the house in New Rochelle a week later because of this, but that no one was there.
    • Mother and Father are barely speaking. Grandfather is dead. Younger Brother is dead. Father is spending much of his time in Washington D.C., selling the military inventions of Younger Brother to the Army and Navy. These include grenade launchers and flamethrowers, and other items that won't be used until World War II.
    • Father believes America will get involved in the war soon. He is headed to London transporting grenades onboard the Lusitania when it's torpedoed, and he dies.
    • Mother mourns for a year, and then marries Tateh. They move to California. There, Tateh is watching his dark-haired daughter, his blonde-haired stepson, and the black son of Sarah and Coalhouse Walker, when he gets an idea for a series of movies about a bunch of pals who have their own adventures together.
    • The time of Ragtime is over. America has won the war. Emma Goldman has been deported. Evelyn Nesbit has lost her looks. And Harry K. Thaw is out of the insane asylum and marches in the Armistice Day parade.