When Joelle Speranza from Smith Publicity requested that I become an early reader of Temptation Rag by Elizabeth Hutchison Barnard, she pitched it to me as dealing with a number of different themes that made it sound both complex and of particular interest to the readers of this blog. So I accepted a paperback ARC from the publisher and this is my honest review.
Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard originally intended to write a book focused on male protagonist Mike Bernard who was a prominent ragtime musician and the grandfather of the author's husband. She decided to expand her focus by creating a fictional life for Mike Bernard's first wife, May Convery, about whom almost nothing is known.
This fictionalized May Convery became a published poet and a women's suffrage activist. Her struggle to achieve the independence that allowed her to pursue the life she wanted for herself is important to this novel. Yet I have to say that the critical factor that allowed her to succeed was having been born into a wealthy family. If that hadn't been the case, May's dreams would have died.
I have seen reviews that call May the real protagonist of Temptation Rag. If this were true, there would have been a great deal more about May's career. While there is some content about her career activities that appears relatively late in the narrative, I feel that this is still primarily a novel about Mike Bernard and ragtime music.
Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard shows us through the life of Mike Bernard how and why the history of ragtime was re-written. This book allows readers to understand that the cultural appropriation of ragtime music was all about racism. Racists could not enjoy this music unless they could claim it for themselves. Mike Bernard is depicted as trying to be fair minded because of his own Jewish heritage. Mike didn't want to owe his success to racism. The suppression of African American musicians is very much a part of Temptation Rag.
I applaud the honest characterization in this book. Mike Barnard is portrayed as a flawed character who mistreated people thoughtlessly and falsified his history. May also became reluctant to share her true self as a result of her experience with Mike. It was difficult for these characters to form meaningful relationships. They were both very self-protective individuals.
Don't read this book if you're looking for a romance novel. There is no HEA. This book is recommended for people who want to know what life was like for women and minorities at the turn of the 20th century in the U.S., and for those who are interested in the history of music.