Sunday, December 17, 2006

Book Review: The Color of Water

December 17, 2006

The Color of Water by James McBride, subtitled "A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother," is a double memoir, telling both the story of the author's mother and of his own life growing up in an interracial family. The author's mother, Ruth McBride Jordan (nee Rachel Shilsky), was born a Polish Jew whose father was a strict and cruel Orthodox rabbi. The family ultimately landed in rural Virginia in the 1930s, where they were despised and rejected as Jews. Her father was emotionally abusive and kept the family in a constant state of misery. Eventually Ruth ran away to New York City and found love and acceptance among Harlem's black community. When she married a black man in the early 1940s, her Jewish family said kaddish and sat shiva. She wasn't even allowed to go to the hospital when word came that her mother was dying. Ultimately Ruth left her Jewish roots completely behind and became a Christian and, with her first husband, founded an all black Baptist church. The author is the eighth of Ruth's 12 children--all of whom graduated from college and went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, journalists, etc.--and none of whom knew more than a smidgen about their mother's past until James began working on this book. This is a beautifully written book, switching between the author's voice and his mother's, creating a vivid picture both of Ruth's struggle with being rejected both as a young Jewish girl and as a white woman in a black world, and of the author's own struggles with having a white mother.

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