Bernard weaves a tale of real and fictional characters set during the rise and fall of ragtime music in the U.S., between 1895 and 1929. The two central figures are the author’s husband’s grandfather, pianist Mike Bernard, and Mike’s first wife. Little is known about May Convery, so the author creates a fictional life for her.
May, a wealthy young New Yorker, falls in love with Mike after her family hires him to be her piano teacher. But May’s society suitor Teddy threatens Mike and he loses his job. After learning how to play ragtime from genre pioneer Ben Harney, Mike is hired as musical director for the impresario Tony Pastor. May runs off to marry Mike, but Teddy and May’s father catch up with her. During the confrontation, Mike’s actions convince May that he never really loved her, so she leaves him to marry Teddy.
Mike wins a contest that proclaims him the “Ragtime King of the World,” and parlays that into celebrity. May despises Mike and won’t tell him that her oldest child is actually his. She finds distraction in writing poetry and as an activist in the women’s suffrage movement. By 1912, there are hints that the musical scene is evolving: ragtime is on the way out and jazz in. The characters must all cope with a fast-changing world.
Historical African-American ragtime musicians, such as Will Marion Cook, J. Rosamond Johnson, and Abbie Mitchell, appear as minor characters. Their plight of struggling for recognition in mainstream white America is touched upon in several passages. Mike is something of a cad; May is an easier character to like. I learned some things about the early music business and enjoyed the story, though it doesn’t surpass Doctorow’s Ragtime as a portrait of the era.