Part II, Chapters 25–27
Mother, Father, Mother's Younger Brother, and the little boy know little about Sarah's life. However, during the few weeks between Coalhouse's proposal of marriage and his postponement of the marriage, she seems genuinely content. She begins to establish friendships with both the little boy and Mother's Younger Brother. Frustrated by Coalhouse's decision to postpone the marriage until he feels the authorities have rectified the situation with his car, Father decides to take matters into his own hands by approaching Willie Conklin himself. However, before he even has an opportunity to do so, Sarah leaves the house one night, unbeknownst to the family, to attend an event at which James Sherman, Mr. Taft's Vice-President, would be present. With the intention of petitioning the United States government on her husband's behalf, Sarah calls out to Jim Sherman in confusion, having mistaken him for the President. A militiaman hits her hard in the chest with the butt of his rifle and a Secret Service man jumps on top of her. At the hospital, Sarah grows increasingly sick; Mother, Father, and Coalhouse visit her there. Within a week she contracts pneumonia and dies.
An elaborate funeral for Sarah takes place in Harlem; Coalhouse spends all the money he has reserved for their wedding on the ceremony. The orchestra with which Coalhouse plays provide the music, and the funeral attendees march to Brooklyn, where Sarah is buried.
Grandfather cracks his pelvis in his excitement about the coming of spring. Harry K. Thaw escapes from prison in upstate New York, but aboard a train near Buffalo he creates a violent scenes, and the police arrest him once again. Houdini continues to grieve for his mother and to have difficulty living without her. She had fallen ill while he was in Europe, and had called out his name immediately before his death, a fact which plagues Houdini, for he fear she had wished to tell him something. He develops an interest in methods of communication with the dead, and educates himself on the tricks of the practice. This process soon lifts his spirits, and he resumes his performances, which become more impressive than ever. At one particular performance in New Rochelle, Houdini almost reveals the secrets to his tricks, but the sound of an explosion prevents him from doing so and creates chaos in the audience.
At the beginning of Chapter 25, the narrator comments on Sarah's sense of morality from Mother's perspective. In this passage, E.L. Doctorow addresses the relationship between poverty and morality. Mother seems surprised to discover Sarah's certainty in her moral actions and beliefs. Here Doctorow may be attempting to demonstrate the falsity of the belief that many upper class citizens may hold; that is, that a wealthy individual has a more acute or correct sense of morality. Through this emphasis on Sarah's moral code, Doctorow debunks this supposed relationship. In Chapter 27, Doctorow focuses most of his narration on Harry Houdini's attempts to come to terms with his mother's death. However, in several instances he also alludes to other characters and events or uses them to segue into the next topic of narration. This use of interconnected characters and events lends the novel, and this chapter in particular, a patchwork quality. In attempting to paint a comprehensive, accurate, and engaging portrait of turn-of-the-century America, Doctorow must consider many different perspectives and the reader to assemble the pieces of the puzzle. For example, after Harry K. Thaw escapes from prison in upstate New York, he says, "Just call me Houdini." The narrator then shifts his focus to the concurrent events in Houdini's life. Soon after, the narrator states, "A rumor in certain circles had it that Pierpont Morgan and Henry Ford had formed a secret society." The reader has already learned this fact, at the end of chapter twenty, but the narrator ties in Houdini's story with that of Ford and Morgan. At the end of chapter twenty-seven, an explosion takes place, which Houdini's audience initially assumes is a product of Houdini's tricks. However, the explosion in fact has taken place across town at the firehouse; this relationship connects Houdini's story line with that of Coalhouse Walker. These connections provide not only a multi-sided account of society at that point in American history, but also a natural transition from one narrative path to another.
Houdini begins to conduct some research on the possibility of contacting the dead, and questions the nature of the afterlife. In so doing, he contacts several scientists; the narrator describes Houdini's many desperate efforts to seek a means of reconnecting with his mother. Again, Doctorow alludes to the influence of technology on turn-of-the-century America as well as to the search for meaning that comprises a main theme of the novel. However, despite the advances of technology, the same essential and human questions emerge about death and the meaning of life. The scientists, despite their musings and theories, have still not succeeded in explaining death or afterlife.
At the end of Chapter 27, Doctorow writes, "Every feat enacted Houdini's desire for his dead mother. He was buried and reborn, buried and reborn. One night, at a single performance only in New Rochelle, his wish for his own death was so apparent that people began to scream and a local clergyman stood up and shouted Houdini, you are experimenting with damnation! Perhaps it is true that he could no longer distinguish his life from his tricks." Having escaped from countless seemingly impossible enclosed spaces and difficult situations, Houdini remains imprisoned by his emotional turmoil.
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