Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 2 Chapter 28 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 2, Chapter 28 | Summary



The explosion happened two miles away from Houdini's performance as Coalhouse and his men bombed the Emerald Isle Fire Station. Four bodies are pulled from the wreckage but unfortunately for Coalhouse, Chief Conklin wasn't among them. There was one survivor who told police a "Negro" man had been behind the attack. Coalhouse does identify himself in letters left at the site, although newspapers refuse to print them. They say, "I want the infamous Fire Chief of the Volunteers turned over to my justices. I want my automobile returned to me in its original conditions. If these conditions are not met I will continue to kill firemen and burn firehouses until they are. I will destroy the entire city if need be."

Although there is not yet any proof, Father presumes Coalhouse is responsible for the attack. He gets his gun from storage and cleans it at the kitchen table; "I'm going to protect my home ... This is his child here. If he makes the mistake of coming to my door I will deal with him." He claims this "tragedy" is Mother's fault, an accusation that brings her to tears. Younger Brother defends Coalhouse's actions and mocks Father's fears. Enraged, Father shouts, "Would you defend this savage? Does he have anyone but himself to blame for Sarah's death? Anything but his damnable nigger pride?"


Sarah's death has pushed Coalhouse over the edge, and he is more reckless in his demands for justice. Sarah was his hope for the future, and now Coalhouse has nothing left to lose. If he gives up his demands or softens his approach, he has lost his pride and racism has won. His newfound motivation for justice seems fueled by Sarah's legacy as well as his own. Injustice has been served—through Conklin's desecration of Coalhouse's car and Sarah's accidental death—and Coalhouse knows the only way he'll receive retribution is to violently demand it. Whereas Mother compared Coalhouse to Booker T. Washington—who believed black men would gain social equality through hard work and service to whites—in Chapter 21, Coalhouse now seems to embody the teachings of Marcus Garvey, the radical black orator who encouraged black citizens to fight against white supremacy with militarized violence.

Father's reaction to Coalhouse's attack is interesting. When he first met Coalhouse, he was leery of allowing a black man into his home no matter how well-dressed or well-spoken. His reaction to Coalhouse, including his tone-deaf comment about the characteristics of ragtime music, support Father's representation of the traditional "old world." Over time, however, Father appears to be evolving. He bails Coalhouse of jail and even offers to help him find a lawyer. When Coalhouse oversteps the line, however, Father wishes to quickly stomp him back "into place," first with degrading language and, if necessary, a gun. Younger Brother, who has socially evolved in this "new world" calls Father out for his assumptions; "why should [Coalhouse] come here ... We did not desecrate his car." Younger Brother "goads" Father because he knows men like Father fear Coalhouse's retribution for supporting a system that allows men like Conklin to go unpunished.

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