Spotlight: Temptation Rag by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard
From the author of The Beauty Doctor, Finalist for the 2018 Eric Hoffer Book Award, 2017 AZ Literary Awards, and a Medallion Honoree of the Book Readers Appreciation Group.
Seventeen-year-old May Convery, unhappy with her privileged life in turn-of-the-century New York City, dreams of becoming a poet. When she meets the talented young Mike Bernard, an aspiring concert pianist, she immediately falls in love. But after their secret liaison is discovered, neither is prepared for the far-reaching consequences that will haunt them for decades. As Mike abandons serious music to ruthlessly defend his hard-won title, Ragtime King of the World, May struggles to find her voice as an artist and a woman. It is not until years after their youthful romance, when they cross paths again, that they must finally confront the truth about themselves and each other. But is it too late?
The world of ragtime is the backdrop for a remarkable story about the price of freedom, the longing for immortality, and the human need to find forgiveness. From vaudeville’s greatest stars to the geniuses of early African American musical theater, an unforgettable cast of real-life characters populates this richly-fictionalized historical saga.
The women making their way down the avenue, cheeks glowing from the cold, eyes burning with conviction, came from every stratum of society, the wealthiest to the poorest. This was no picket line, no stubborn demonstration by a handful of militants hoping for a small headline in the morning paper. This was a force to be reckoned with, a force to which the politicians in Washington would have to answer, sooner or later. These women were betting on the numbers; there were too many of them to ignore.
But despite the impressive turnout, the suffragettes were clearly outnumbered. The street was lined with tens of thousands of onlookers, some only curious but others intent on undermining the women’s morale. They included men of all descriptions, from common laborers in canvas and khaki to office types in overcoats and gray bowlers. Men presumably with loving mothers and sisters, devoted wives, obedient daughters. Men who no doubt considered themselves inarguably civilized but, in the blink of an eye, had changed into quite the opposite. Their relentless heckling was predictably rude, shockingly hateful.
The arrogance of these ill-mannered naysayers only served to harden May’s resolve. But their voraciousness made her nervous. The policemen stationed along the parade route didn’t seem to be taking their assignment too seriously. Rather than pushing back on the crowd, they appeared perfectly happy to let the worst of the rabble-rousers do whatever they wished. Already a few had crossed the line that separated spectators from protesters, the authorities either unaware or simply choosing to do nothing.
As she headed down the parade route, trying not to let her uneasiness get the best of her, May thought of what Rosamond told her on the night they met, as they sat at her kitchen table sharing a fine bottle of Madeira. Freedom isn’t yours until you make it yours, not until you decide there’s simply no other way to live. Back then, she had only the vaguest notion of what he meant. She was too caught up in her self-inflicted misery; the only way she knew to express herself was through suffering. Her headaches had nearly driven her mad. But she had stopped seeing Dr. Adams long ago. Her need for him disappeared once she resolved to channel her anger and frustration in more productive directions—her poetry and the suffrage movement, work as vital to her now as the air she breathed.
There were some who argued that today’s parade, with its theatrical flag-waving, mounted brigades, marching bands, and floats, would only engender hostility. It would end up setting the movement back, they said, not moving it forward. May had sided with those who believed the time had come to stop begging and start demanding, and she felt honored to be among those selected to ride on horseback near the front of the parade. Granted, over the years, proceeds from sales of her books had provided substantial support to the cause. But she preferred to think she was singled out because of the voice she had given to the movement through her poetry, which had achieved a popularity far exceeding her expectations.
Still, in the midst of all the praise and notoriety, at times she couldn’t help feeling like an imposter, the kind of person who preaches one kind of life while living another. After all, her marriage was, and always had been, a hoax. It had become even more unbearable since her father’s death. Not surprisingly, Teddy seemed to believe that the passing of George Convery gave him license to treat her however he pleased. His disdain for her appeared no longer to have boundaries.
“Help! Somebody help!”
The screams came from behind her. Twisting in the saddle, she saw that a small group of men had stormed the procession. She watched in disbelief and horror as several of them began ripping signs and banners of protest from the suffragettes’ hands, snatching the women’s hats from their heads, pushing them to the ground, or grabbing them by the arms and attempting to drag them off the street.
Dear God, how could this be happening? Where were the police? The parade organizers had been assured by DC officials that crowds would be contained, the marchers would be protected. Why was no one in authority lifting a finger?
May signaled to the several other women on horseback who were close by, all of them now aware of the unfolding chaos. Without having to utter a word, everyone seemed to understand what must be done. May was the first to turn her horse around. She had never been more terrified; the last thing she had planned on was becoming a vigilante. But how could she simply stand by as her sisters were spit upon, brutalized, and literally kidnapped off the street?
She took a tremulous breath, then dug her heels into the animal’s side.
About the Author
Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard is an award-winning author of historical fiction. Her novel The Beauty Doctor is a suspenseful tale that takes place in the early days of cosmetic surgery—when the world of medicine was a bit like the Wild West and beauty doctors were the newest breed of outlaw. Temptation Rag: A Novel immerses readers in the bawdy atmosphere of vaudeville and early twentieth-century African American musical theater in a story about the price of freedom, the longing for immortality, and the human need to find forgiveness.
Elizabeth currently lives in Arizona with her husband and their much-loved and very spoiled black Lab.