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James McBride - The Color of Water

This memoir, recommended to me by b3nitora, is subtitled "A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother." However, when the author was a young boy, growing up in Queens, he frequently wished that his mother his mother was black, like the mothers of his classmates. Just as frequently - because he loved his mother dearly - he was terrified that she would be hurt or killed because of her differentness. As he grew older, he became aware that the mystery of his mother went beyond her skin color: she could speak Yiddish to the garment district merchants and insisted that her children attend predominantly Jewish schools. Yet she refused to discuss her past, insisting that her 12 children keep their minds on business: school and church.

Although the family was horrifyingly poor, and several of her children strayed from their mother's stern rule for a time, Ruth McBride Jordan managed managed to bring up 12 children through the 1950s, 1960, and 1970s and sent them all to college. It was not until James McBride became a journalist and was inspired to write his mother's story that the pieces started to fall into place: his mother was born the daughter of a rabbi and raised in the South, fled to relatives in New York when in her teens, and fell in love with and married an African American man who eventually founded a Baptist church.

This story is almost as much a mystery as it is a memoir. It is sometimes quite funny and often very sad. I enjoyed it.

The Color of Water by James McBride - review

The story is told in alternating chapters, as McBride tells of his own life and gradual realization of how different his mother truly was, interspersed with sections recounting what his mother eventually told him about her own history. The solution to the mystery of why Rachel Deborah Shilsky left her Jewish home and eventually her faith is both simple and sad. Her family was a deeply unhappy one. Her mother was a physically handicapped woman with clear self-esteem issues, her father an abusive tyrant who mocked his wife, terrorized his three children, and couldn't keep his hands off his eldest daughter. Fishel Shilsky was a failure as a rabbi: no congregation kept him for more than a year. The family eventually settled in Suffolk, Virginia, where her father, finally wearying of the constant moves, bought a ramshackle building on the poor, African-American side of town and opened up a shop that catered mainly to its poor nearest neighbors. His children were shunned by their Christian classmates, and with one shining exception - a courageous, generous young girl named Frances - young Rachel found kindness and friendship only among her black neighbors.

She eventually fled to relatives in New York, where she first worked for her tightfisted aunt's shoe factory. Her co-workers included a kind, intelligent young man who had recently come up from North Carolina: Andrew Dennis McBride. The two lived together at first, because of the difficulties of obtaining a legal interracial marriage at that time, even in New York, but as their devotion to their Christian faith grew, they decided that they had to make it legal. Ruth (she now went by the name she'd adopted as a teen in Virginia) returned to Suffolk only once, when her mother was ill. But after that, her family found out from her New York relatives about her living arrangements, and they cut her off completely, considering her dead to them. She devoted herself to her new faith and her growing family. After her first husband died of cancer, leaving her with 8 children, she was courted by and eventually married another kind, devout African American man, Hunter Jordan Sr., who treated his stepchildren as though they were his own.

James McBride's own memories tell the story of an amazingly poor and chaotic household, run almost entirely by his mother, because his stepfather was only around on the weekends. There was never enough food, clothing, or sleeping space, and time with Mommy was at a premium because she worked an evening shift as a typist at a bank, leaving the older children to manage the younger. Yet their mother insisted on good grades, and sent her children all over the city to attend the best schools she could manage. They all learned to play musical instruments, were allowed to keep pets (which only added to the mess and chaos of the home), and attended church on a tightly managed schedule. The biggest treats were goodies that Mommy smuggled home from her office's subsidized cafeteria, and time spent with Daddy.

Several of the children rebelled at various times, including young James. Yet their eccentric mother's influence was so strong that not only did all of them eventually finish college, but many went on to advanced degrees. At the time the book was written, in 1996, McBride's siblings included the Director of the Stamford, Conn., Health Department; the Chairman of the Afro-American History department at Pennsylvania State University; and a chemistry research associate at AT&T, as well as several teachers and other professionals. Ruth herself eventually went back to school and earned a degree in social work at age 65, which she proceeded to put to good use in counseling pregnant, unwed young women and running reading groups for senior citizens.

The copy of the book that I read was the 10th anniversary edition, and I was delighted with the afterward, in which McBride tells how the book (which became a huge bestseller and the selection of book groups nationwide) affected his mother. It's a pleasure to hear that it helped her become reconciled with a number of the surviving members of her Jewish family, and that she is continuing to attend multiple churches, visit old friends in Queens, and drive her loving family crazy. She deserves a happy ending.

This was a very pleasant read. There's no reason to compare it to All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, which I covered earlier, except that they are both memoirs that I read this year - and I don't usually read nonfiction. But there are some points in common. Both involve U.S. Jews on the fringes of their faith, and both are humorous and yet poignant stories involving families. But Fishes was a more extreme book in every way: the humor sharper, the setting much more exotic, the situations much less familiar to the average U.S. reader. There's also a profound difference in overall feeling that comes from the stages in life covered by the two books: The Color of Water is an appreciation of a long life that is coming to a close, while Fishes is an open-ended celebation of a life that was just beginning to flower by the end of the book.


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