We are introduced to the social and political climate of the United States in the early 20th century by meeting the future players of our culture and our plain people characters. Firstly we visit New Rochelle to meet an average family: Mother, her Young Brother, Father, and their son, Little Boy. We then visit Harlem to meet Coalhouse, a piano player, and his girlfriend, Sarah. We meet Tateh, an immigrant, and his young daughter, Little Girl. The lives of these average people are entwined with the likes of Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan and Emma Goldman.
We next learn the story of Evelyn Nesbit, a Chorine Dancer, whose famous architect boyfriend, Stanford White, killed a rival lover. What is impressed is the potential of violence of the era ? the White, the Black, the Immigrant, the famous.
Soon we learn that Father will be accompanying Admiral Peary on a trip to the North Pole. He will be gone a year and consoles his wife that everything will be the same upon his return. Leaving port, Father sees the rag ship of Tateh and the Little Girl; he admires their bravery in coming to a new land. On the rag ship, the Little Girl thinks it strange that the ship leaves America, her destination.
Back home Mother misses her husband terribly; she does not see how she can manage the family business and take care of the family on her own. Her son, Little Boy, wants to meet Houdini. Her younger brother is in love with Evelyn Nesbit. He sees all of Nesbit's shows. When her boyfriend?s murder trial begins, he is at the courthouse everyday. One time they meet. She crushes his heart and his dreams of their union.
One day soon, while mother is gardening, she finds a newborn African-American child in the bushes. The police arrive on the premises with Sarah. Rather than let Sarah go to prison, Mother takes mother and child into her own home.
We then visit Ellis Island where the Little Girl, her father Tateh are among thousands of other immigrants who are all happy to have reached America. Tateh sells paper silhouettes of celebrities for pennies. He is chastised by Emma Goldman for selling one of J.P. Morgan, the epitome of capitalization. J.P. Morgan himself enters the scene to squash any immigrant uprising, hopes, or dreams. Harry Houdini, once an immigrant himself, appears before Tateh to encourage him to succeed. Time passes, however, and Tateh remains a failing silhouette maker. He and Little Girl are living in the Lower East Side slums of Manhattan. She is always sick. When a man tries to buy the Little Girl, Tateh has reached rock bottom. He is determined to make a life for himself and his child.
Next we visit Harlem and learn the history of Coalhouse Walker, well-renown pianist. He has loved and lost Sarah due to his own foolishness. He?s just found out where she might be living, however, and is determined to win her back. Henry Ford appears to tell us of his new model for mass production and his most famous product ? the model T Ford. Coalhouse drives off in his new model T in search of Sarah.
Back in New Rochelle, Mother and Little Boy wait at the train station to go to the New York City to take care of father?s affairs, the family business. Tateh and the Little Girl wait across the tracks for a train to Boston. Mother and Tateh greet one another tentatively. Tateh is surprised by the different kind of person who lives outside the city. Much to the surprise of his mother, Little Boy feels sure that they will see Tateh and the Little girl again.
In his car Coalhouse reaches New Rochelle. He is met by hostility from a group of firemen, angered that a Black man is in their neighborhood. Finally Coalhouse reaches Mother?s home ? but Sarah will not see him. He returns every Sunday for weeks and waits for Sarah to soften. Father returns from the North Pole to a very different household from the one he left. He now has an independent wife, a boarder, a baby and a visitor playing Ragtime in his living room.
Coalhouse finally has won over Sarah. They imagine a future for their child. Tateh works at a mill where he encounters great oppression by the mill owners. In Union Square Emma Goldman tries to generate a strike against the mill owners. The Younger Brother escapes from the cold into the building who Goldman speaks. He finds himself a misplaced rich kid among rallying blue-collar workers. A huge movement begins with a labor strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Tateh takes his Little Girl to Philadelphia in hopes of her living with a family. On the train, a conductor notices the book of ?moving? silhouettes Tateh?s made for her. The book becomes Tateh?s first big sale.
Booker T. Washington gives a speech about struggling against the odds. Coalhouse and Sarah have their car destroyed by the same group of firemen who first harassed Coalhouse. They vainly try to find justice through legal channels. Coalhouse is furious and wants his due. Sarah seeks help from a visiting Vice Presidential candidate; she makes the mistake of rushing at him during a public visit and is clubbed to death by police.
Coalhouse mourns the loss of Sarah. Seeking vengeance, he shoots three of the firemen who first attacked them, burns their firehouse and demands that the fire chief be brought to justice. Coalhouse now has a band of men following him. He is now known as a madman on the lose with a gun. Booker T. Washington publicly condemns Coalhouse?s actions. Father goes to the police to tell them what he knows about Coalhouse. He has a huge fight with Younger Brother who has been moved by the plight of the oppressed ? the worker and the African American population.
Father takes Little Boy to a baseball game in order to spend more time with his son. Meanwhile Coalhouse?s band of men set fires around the city. Reporters besiege the family in New Rochelle and Father sends Mother, Little Boy and Coalhouses? baby to Atlantic City so that child welfare cannot take the baby.
In Atlantic City Tateh has become a famous film director. His daughter, now healthy and beautiful, is by his side. Once again, he meets the family from New Rochelle and tells them of his company, Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.. Little Girl and Little Boy play together as Tateh reveals to Mother his humble origins.
In Harlem, Younger Brother searches for Coalhouse. It?s not easy ? his being a white, affluent man in a primarily African-American neighborhood. All are distrustful of him. Coalhouse waits in front of a nightclub thinking of the first time he met Sarah when Younger Brother is brought to him blindfolded. Younger brother wants to express what he feels is understanding of the plight of the oppressed. All he can manage to do however, is offer his help with explosives.
Coalhouse focuses his rage by taking over J.P. Morgan?s Library. He threatens to blow up the library as well as himself and all his men, one of whom is Younger Brother. Hearing of this, Father feels he must act as a negotiator. While Emma Goldman applauds Coalhouse?s actions, Booker T. Washington scorns them. He is however, as Father points out to the authorities, the only man to whom Coalhouse will listen. Booker T. is sent in the library to speak with Coalhouse. He assures Coalhouse a fair trial and forum for his opinions if he surrenders. Father replaces Booker T. as a hostage and Coalhouse commands all his men to leave. They are angry at his seeming failure. When Coalhouse is left alone with Father, he asks about his son. Father promises a safe end to the standoff. When Coalhouse and Father exit the building, Coalhouse is shot dead by authorities.
Epilogue: The era of Ragtime has ended. Younger Brother joins the forces of Emiliano Zapata in Mexico. Emma Goldman is deported. Booker T. Washington establishes The Tuskegee Institute. Father is killed during wartime. Mother and Tateh are married and moved to California with their children: Little Girl, Little Boy, and Coalhouse and Sarah?s baby.
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