The Color of Water

The Color of Water is a dual biography of a man and his mother. By telling his mother’s story, says author James McBride, he is learning about his own. The narration alternates between McBride telling of his life growing up as one of twelve children and the life of his mother, Ruchel Dwajra Zylska (Ruth McBride Jordan). His own father died when his mother was pregnant with him—the eighth child. She later married Jordan and had four more children. McBride’s step-father is painted as a loving man who made no distinction between his step-children and his own. He was supportive to all, and his death is a blow to McBride. For McBride’s mother, it is an event that sends her into a tailspin.


McBride’s family is always poor, but his mother manages, in her own wild and sometimes neurotic manner, to raise a dozen smart, creative professionals. When McBride wavers between professional careers (he’s a man of many talents), he is compelled to ask his mother about her own life. This is terribly difficult for her as she has spent years forgetting her roots. It takes McBride nearly a decade to squeeze the story out of her.


Rachel (Ruth) was born Jewish in Poland to a mother crippled from polio and to a small, vicious, and mean-spirited father. Her childhood and youth are unhappy. She is an outcast in Suffolk, VA because she is Jewish. Her father buys a store in the Black section of (the segregated) town and becomes wealthy overcharging his customers. He hates Blacks and berates them in Yiddish. He molests Ruth, and she is afraid of him.


Ruth has a natural affinity for her Black neighbors and customers. Eventually, she has a Black boyfriend and becomes pregnant by him. Since this is the late 1930s, if people found out, the boy would be lynched. Ruth ends up in New York with relatives who will barely abide her but offer knowledge of a doctor who performs abortions. Ruth decides to stay in New York and avoid her father as well as the suffocating South. Here she meets her first husband, McBride.


Ruth’s family disowns her for marrying a Black man. Feeling a deep need for forgiveness—and for forgiving—Ruth becomes a Christian. Her family then considers her dead and will not speak to her, even when she is a pregnant widow with seven children.


This is a bittersweet story. McBride is right to be amazed by his mother, who is often the only white woman in the neighborhood. She refuses to see color lines and doesn’t acknowledge the stares and taunts of those around her. Her belief in the value of an education, tempered by her religious zeal, help to mold the author into the creative and successful man he becomes.


About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
This entry was posted in Biography/Memoir, Multicultural, Non-fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Color of Water

  1. Mrs. Kelsen says:

    I agree with Mrs. Sikes and Mrs. Thornhill about the characters and title. What I also love about this book is Mc Bride’s candor and humor. He narrates the events so well that at times I felt I was spying on a family dinner to which I was not invited; this is what pulls the reader in, though, because the plot is rich and real and poignant.

  2. Mrs. Sikes says:

    I had to read this book in college and I liked it immediately! Growing up with a diverse background or in a big, chaotic family isn’t always seen as a blessing by those who actually live the life. I appreciated the honesty of McBride in conveying the experience of a child who was confused and full of questions.
    The perseverence of the mother in this story was amazing. I had to keep reminding myself that the story was true!
    The title and its part in the book was my favorite part.

  3. Vic,
    I really enjoyed this book. The dedication of Ruth was incredible and the life she lead was the best Bible her children, her neighbors and her family could ever read. Even in her nuttiness, she had incredible morals to teach those around her and who were smart enough to observe.
    The best of the best is of course how much her son loved her. Throughout the book, I was touched and could feel through his accounts of her life, as his own, the reverence he had for his mother. Perfect!

  4. Thought this was a very uplifting love story between a mother and son’s devotion. Helps to break down color barriers, and stereotypes.

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