Book Review of Temptation Rag: A Novel by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard.
Back in the late 19th century in America, the latest rage was ragtime music. While the first name that might come to mind for us today is Scott Joplin, the origins of this musical genre predated him by quite a bit. In the beginning this was considered an original genre started by African Americans (probably Ernest Hogan), but the racially charged attitudes that followed the American Civil War, allowed white composers to appropriate it and make it their own. One of them was Ben Harney, who was often called the originator or father of ragtime (mostly by himself and later, by Time magazine after his death). Another was Mark Bernard, who was Harney’s rival, and the twice crowned “Ragtime King of the World.” Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard decided to pay tribute to her ancestor Mark, and the people who made this musical genre the phenomena it was, in this biographical, historical fiction novel.
From my own experience, telling your own family’s story though fiction can be a dangerous endeavor. Often the writer can get too sentimental, hung up on family lore, entrenched in superfluous details, or overly positive about people who don’t deserve such praise. Thankfully, Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard (or as I’ll call her, EHB, to avoid confusion) artfully sidestepped all of these pitfalls and brought us a cast of characters that practically jump off the page for her readers, most of whom are heartily flawed. This isn’t to say that that EHB aired the family laundry, because with all their imperfections, EHB also treats them all with a level of kindness that makes even the more seemly of them garner the reader’s sympathy. This was a true balancing act, and kudos to EHB for pulling it off with such aplomb. Furthermore, I’m glad that EHB didn’t sidestep the whole cultural appropriation issue, and continued to reference the African American personalities as prominent throughout the book, even though they were minor characters here.
I also appreciated EHB’s writing style here, which never felt artificial, allowing just enough jargon and dialect to feel authentic without it overpowering or distracting from the narrative. In fact, throughout this book I felt that EHB had a very good handle on giving each of her characters their own voice. This was most prominent with her major characters, who were Mark Bernard; May Convery, who was Mark’s first wife, and; Ben Harney. Interestingly enough, in the chapters about Ben Harney, EHB decided to tell his story from the viewpoint of his last wife, Jessie Boyce (an actress whose stage name was Jessie Haynes). Changing points of view for different characters is not an unknown literary mechanic, but sometimes it can be jarring for the reader. Not so with this novel, and these switches helped EHB put subtly varying levels of focus on each of the characters. In this way, the reader will feel that Harney is somewhat of an aloof person for the reader; as if Jessie is the only person who really knew and understood him (which might be historically correct, but we’ll never know). At the same time, readers will get a more intimate feel for both Barnard and Convery, in almost equal measures.
Further to this, I have to admit that my favorite character was actually May Convery, despite the fact that she only orbited the ragtime world, and was never truly immersed in its world. This brings me to the one thing about this book that was a slight disappointment. I liked May so much that I particularly enjoyed reading all the passages with her as the focus, especially after she leaves her (second) husband and becomes such an independent and forthright woman. The result was that I found myself wondering if this might have been more interesting if she had been the primary protagonist, with Bernard and Harney and all the rest downplayed to more minor roles. It is possible that if this had been Convery’s story, it might have gotten a full five stars from me, mainly because she was more a figment of EHB’s imagination than the other two (since there’s almost no information about her that’s anything more than a footnote in Bernard’s biography), and EHB has a very vivid imagination indeed. This doesn’t mean that I was frustrated by this book, because overall, I did enjoy it; but oh, if it had been only May’s story, I think I would have fallen completely in love with this novel.
All that said, I’m sure you can gather from this that I believe EHB a very talented writer, who did an impressive job of balancing fiction with history and biography. This made for a (dare I say it) harmonious novel about a lesser known time in American musical history, which informs her readers about this fascinating aspect of this turn-of-the-century era. EHB also cleverly slipped some current, hot-button issues into this novel with references to racism and sexism, which were rampant at the time (and which seem to be rearing their ugly heads once again). For all this, I can assuredly recommend this book and give it a very healthy four out of five stars.
Belle Epoque Publishing released “Temptation Rag: A Novel” by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard on December 3, 2018. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo (Walmart) eBooks, eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Better World Books (to promote libraries and world literary) and Alibris, as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.