It was the early 20th century and ragtime black pianist Coaltrain Walker was returning from New Rochelle to New York City after visiting his fiancée Sarah and their infant son, when he was accosted by a group of white firemen, led by Chief Will Conklin. The firemen demanded he pay a "toll" for driving on their road. While Walker went to fetch a policeman, the firemen vandalized his new car. The policeman took the side of the racist vandals. Soon after, Walker's fiancé died when after being struck by a policeman and receiving inadequate medical attention.
Coaltrain Walker quickly took action. He firebombed the station where he was harassed, he demanded the surrender of Conklin, he demanded the repair of his car, and he demanded an apology. Ripple effects were felt - not only by the society who learned of his violence - but by the white family that had assisted him and his family.
"Ragtime" by E.L. Doctorow looks at race relations in this country
Coaltrain's isn't the only story in this novel, but it is the most important. And the other stories and characters weave together imaginatively. For example, Tateh, a character introduced early in the novel (he is an impoverished artist, who is assisted by the former lover of Mother's Little Brother) reappears later as a fake Baron who makes animated movies.
"Ragtime" attacks race relations in America head on. Often, even those whites who are helpful to blacks still see them as inferior. Walker's experience is insulting enough that we feel sympathy for him, even as he resorts to vigilantism.
There is a network of people affected by this story. We never know the names of some of the most important ones - for example, the family that takes in the fiancée and baby are identified by names like "Father" and "Mother" and "Mother's Younger Brother"; and some are well-known historical figures, such as J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, and Robert Peary.
But Doctorow takes us on a journey through many lives and the effects they have on one another.