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.