Color of Water (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch


The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute
to His White Mother

James McBride 1996
362 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
November 2007

For years James McBride was puzzled, even slightly repulsed, by his mother. She was strange.

The mother of 12 African-American children, she rode a bicycle, spoke Yiddish and was, as she put it, "light skinned." She evaded any question about her background with "God made me." She was, in fact, far stranger than McBride suspected.

It isn't until well into adulthood that McBride learned her story. Ruth McBride Jordan, aka Ruchel Dwara Zylska, is a Polish Jew. She immigrated to the U.S. as a child, was raised in Virginia by her abusive Orthodox Rabbi father, ran away at 17, married a black man in New York's Harlem, converted to Christianity, and eventually bore 12 children. You couldn't make that stuff up.

We learn all this through the childhood eyes—and the adult pen—of McBride, who in a series of interviews elicits her story. Interspersed with her history (in italics) are McBride's own childhood recollections. In the process, he discovers much about himself—it is his own journey of self-identity.

The writing can be funny and heartwarming, peppered with some of Ruth's homespun wisdom:

Mommy... acted as chief surgeon for bruises ("Put iodine on it.")...chief psychologist ("Don't think about it."), and financial advisor ("What's money if your mind is empty?").

There are moments of horror and revulsion toward Ruth's father. And passages of deep sadness surrounding her first husband, Dennis McBride, who died while she carried James.

Although their lives were embedded in poverty and utter chaos, Ruth manages to send all 12 of her children to the best schools in Manhattan, every one of them to college, and some to graduate school. This is a remarkable story—all the more so because it's true—and a "can't-put-it-down" page-turner.

See our Reading Guide for The Color of Water.

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