Mother is part of the upper class family living in New Rochelle. Disappointed by her marriage to Father, she marries Tateh after Father's death. She often feels guilt over her treatment of her brother, referred to in the novel as Mother's Younger Brother. Throughout the novel she experiences many changes through her care for the child of Coalhouse and Sarah, as well as her newfound awareness of her sexuality.

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Father owns a company that manufactures fireworks and other accoutrements of patriotism such as flags and banners. He represents the traditional views held by many turn-of-the-century Americans. After his return from his trip to the Arctic, he feels alienated from his family and his environment; this feeling will never entirely disappear. While he grew up with some wealth in his family, his father later lost this wealth and he had to find his own path of success in business.

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The little boy

Son of Mother and Father, the little boy is the narrative voice for much of the novel. Precocious, intelligent, observant, and curious, the little boy is constantly learning about the world around him. He forms a close friendship with Tateh's little girl Sha. He represents the next generation of Americans.

Harry Houdini

A character stolen from real life, Houdini is a magician and performer who appears intermittently throughout the novel. He is overly dependent on his mother, and suffers greatly after her death. He begins to conduct research on the afterlife and contact with the dead. At the beginning of the novel, his car breaks down in front of the family's house in New Rochelle, and he meets the little boy, who admires him greatly.

Mother's Younger Brother

Idealistic and difficult, Mother's Younger Brother searches for a sense of self throughout the novel. He falls in love with Evelyn Nesbit, and spends some time with her before she leaves him. He becomes embittered and depressed, and soon joins the forces of Coalhouse to fight injustice. Subsequently, he travels all around the United States and then to Mexico, where he becomes involved in several revolutionary campaigns and where he eventually dies.

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Evelyn Nesbit

The real-life figure of Evelyn Nesbit was a symbol of sex and beauty at the turn of the century. She endures the trial of her husband Harry Thaw for the murder of her ex-husband Stanford White. In this novel, she develops an interest in Tateh and his little girl, and attempts to help them escape the poverty of life as an immigrant on the Lower East Side.

Harry K. Thaw

Harry Thaw is Evelyn Nesbit's husband and the murderer of her ex-husband and rival, architect Stanford White. Evelyn begins to question his love for her after talking to Emma Goldman about his treatment of her.

Stanford White

A famous architect, Stanford White dies at the hands of Harry Thaw. Evelyn believes that she truly loved him.


Wife of Tateh and mother to Sha, Mameh does not appear in the novel, but other characters allude to her. Having she performs sexual favors for her boss for money, Tateh disowns her and never sees her again. He later finds out she has died.


Tateh is a Jewish immigrant from Latvia. In the first part of the novel he lives with his daughter on the Lower East Side, working as a peddler and a silhouette artist. He later leaves with his daughter to travel to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he becomes a filmmaker. He marries Mother at the end of the novel.

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The little girl

Beautiful Sha is quiet and reserved at the beginning of the novel, but grows more animated and happier when she leaves New York City. She becomes good friends with the little boy.

Jacob Riis

Riis is a famous journalist and advocate of the poor who wrote How the Other Half Lives, which exposed life in the tenements.

Sigmund Freud

A famous psychiatrist, Freud has a profound affect on ideas about sex and society in America.

Emma Goldman

An anarchist and social activist, Emma Goldman appears throughout the novel to challenge other characters' conceptions.

Coalhouse Walker

Coalhouse is a ragtime pianist. He is the father of Sarah's child. He becomes militant and violent about his cause by the end of the novel.

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Sarah mothers a child with Coalhouse and dies attempting to fight for Coalhouse's cause.

Henry Ford

Ford invents the concept of the assembly line and makes his fortune through the manufacture of Model-Ts.

J.P. Morgan

Morgan is an incredibly wealthy financier with an interest in Egyptian culture, art, and religion. Coalhouse and his followers take over his residence and library in his absence.

Willie Conklin

Obnoxious and mean, fire chief Conklin acts hostilely toward Coalhouse, and is soon forced out of New Rochelle.

Charles S. Whitman

Whitman is District Attorney of New York and helps to negotiate Coalhouse's evacuation of Morgan's property.

Booker T. Washington

Washington is a well-educated and famous orator and Black civil rights leader. He believes friendship and cooperation is essential to the success of Black people in America.