For years James McBride was puzzled, even repulsed by his mother. She was strange. She was, in fact, far stranger than McBride suspected. It isn't until well into adulthood that McBride learns her story.
A LitLovers LitPick - (Nov '07)
Suffused with issues of race, religion and identity. Yet those issues, so much a part of their lives and stories, are not central. The triumph of the book--and of their lives—is that race and religion are transcended in these interwoven histories by family love, the sheer force of a mother's will and her unshakable insistence that only two things really mattered: school and church...it is her voice—unique, incisive, at once unsparing and ironic—that is dominant in this paired history, and its richest contribution....The two stories, son's and mother's, beautifully juxtaposed, strike a graceful note at a time of racial polarization.
The New York Times Book Review
At a time when the relationship between African-Americans and Jews is deeply fissured, The Color of Water reminds us that the two groups have a long history of coexistence—sometimes within a single person. The author's mother, Ruth Shilsky, was born in Poland in 1920, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. She grew up in rural Virginia, hemmed in by anti-Semitism and small-town claustrophobia, and at the age of 18 she fled to the cultural antipodes of Harlem. There, four years later, she married a black man named Dennis McBride, and since her family promptly disowned her, she launched a second existence as (to quote her son) "a flying compilation of competing interests and conflicts, a black woman in white skin." The lone Caucasian in her Brooklyn housing project, she somehow raised 12 children without ever quite admitting she was white. In retrospect, of course, her son is able to recognize that his parents "brought a curious blend of Jewish-European and African-American distrust and paranoia into our house." However, as children, James McBride and his 11 siblings didn't dwell on questions of their mother's color. Only later, after he became a professional journalist, did McBride feel compelled to tackle the riddle of his heritage. Bit by bit, he coaxed out his mother's story, and her voice -- stoic, funny, and with a matter-of-fact flintiness—alternates perfectly with his own tale of biracial confusion and self-discovery.
James Marcus - Salon
The need to clarify his racial identity prompted the author to penetrate his veiled and troubled family history. Ruth McBride Jordan concealed her former life as Rachel Deborah Shilsky, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, from her children. Her grim upbringing in an abusive environment is left behind when she moves to Harlem, marries a black man, converts to Christianity, and cofounds a Baptist congregation with her husband. The courage and tenacity shown by this twice-widowed mother who manages to raise 12 children, all of whom go on to successful careers, are remarkable. Highly recommended for public libraries. The Color of Water [will] make you proud to be a member of the human race. —Linda Bredengerd, Univ. of Pittsburgh Lib., Bradford, Pa
"An eloquent narrative in which a young black man searches for his roots--against the wishes of his mother. Mc Bride, a professional saxophonist and former staff writer for the Boston Globe and Washington Post, grew up with 11 siblings in an all-black Brooklyn, New York, housing project. As a child, he became aware that his mother was different from others around him: She was white, and she kept secrets...McBride's mother should take much pleasure in this loving if sometimes uncomfortable memoir, which embodies family values of the best kind. Other readers will take pleasure in it as well.
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