The Color of Water an Engaging

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The Color of Water by James McBride was an engaging, relatable, and overall triumphant novel about the life of a mother and her twelve children, told mainly from the perspective of her son James, but we also get views from the moms perspective. This novel goes back and forth from the mothers perspective of growing up and James’. The mother, Ruth, takes us through her life as a child and how her family were Polish immigrant Jews looking for a new life in America.

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She tells us about her father “Tateh” who was a Jewish rabbi and her mother “Mameh” who suffered from polio which caused her to be handicap. Ruth explains her life growing up with a father who abused her, a mother who was stuck in an unloving marriage, and two siblings who were just as broken as she was. Her eldest brother, Sam, ended up running away from home around fifteen after being fed up with having to live up to his father’s expectations, it is later found out that he was killed during WWII.

Ruth also has a younger sister, Dee-Dee, whom Ruth ends up losing contact with after breaking her promise to stay with her in Suffolk, but due to Ruth’s new life and neglect of her old one she can’t keep her promise. Ruth was raised when segregation was ending, but blacks and whites were still seen as separate. She felt this the most being raised in the south were it was majority blacks and during this time is when the Ku Klux Klan were in effect. She really felt there presence when it came to her boyfriend, Peter, who was black, while she was white. Later on, Ruth moves to New York and meets her first husband Dennis, whom they share eight children, James being the last one, after Dennis dies of lung cancer. After sometime she meets her second husband Hunter Jordan, whom she adds four more kids on to her already eight, making it twelve. He eventually passes of a stroke which leads Ruth to raising her kids with three main things in mind; education, church, and family.

James begins his perspective of the book with questions about his mother and where she came from. Throughout the novel anytime James brings up questions about her past, she avoids it and changes the subject. He never understands why she does this, because from his view it’s just a simple question, but to his mom it brings up everything from her past and it doesn’t seem like she likes to reminisce. From James’ perspective it seems as though his mother is closed off and very flustered all the time, but from her perspective we get to see a side of Ruth that we wouldn’t have been able to see from just James’ perspective. Growing up James was always confused about what he was in terms of race. He didn’t know if he was black or white. He always wanted to be just one thing, because it would make things “easier”. Towards the end of the novel James travels to Suffolk, Virginia where his mother grew up. It is during this time where James gets an idea of what it must have been like for his mother and grandmother in this lonely town. He ends the novel with all his siblings and their families at his moms house during the holidays, which showed us that family was the most important thing to him and even though it was rocky through the years, he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

The time frame that this book takes place makes sense that majority of the events had some form of racism in it. This book was set at a time when segregation was ending and people were still strongly biased and racist towards people of color. One example of racism that was shown in the book was when Ruth and Dennis wanted to buy a building in their community to start a church and the man selling the building wouldn’t sell it to Dennis because he was African American. As a result, Ruth had to go and buy it from him and he ended up selling it to her, only after did he realize Ruth and Dennis were together and tried getting it back, but couldn’t because it was already done. This type of racism is what continued the bias towards people of color, because they were seen as inferior to their white counterparts.

Another form of racism that occurred in the story that I feel could have hit home for a lot of readers is when Ruth came home from New York from getting an abortion. This situation was difficult because Ruth who was white was dating Peter who was African American. This was hard for both Ruth and Peter because Ruth’s father, Tateh, was very racist and did not like African American people. In their community if a person of color was seen looking, let alone dating a white person they could be hanged, even killed. For Ruth and Peter, keeping their relationship a secret was crucial for the both of them. After sometime of being with Peter, Ruth finds out that she is pregnant and doesn’t tell anyone, but it is revealed that her mother finds out about her and Peter. Her mother tells her she should go to New York and while she’s their her Aunt Betsy helps her get an abortion. After sometime Ruth returns to Suffolk, and comes to find out that Peter has gotten another girl pregnant, but the only difference is that she is like him, African American. Peter also tells Ruth that he plans on marrying her because it’s the right thing to do. This breaks Ruth because that could have been her, but because she’s white it was impossible.

This book connected to Ethnic Studies because it was enlaced with the ideas of racism, prejudice, stereotyping, white privilege, and identity. Identity confusion was always brought up during James’ childhood because he didn’t know if he was black or white. He looked black but he had a white mom. He always wondered why he looked different from his mom, because he would look at his friends and see that they all looked like their moms. During his childhood, instead of going to the neighborhood school James and his siblings would travel an hour and a half to get to their predominantly white Jewish school, where they were the sole black kids. While going to school James was faced with prejudice from his teachers who shared racist attitudes and were more than happy “to knock [there] test scores down to 85’s and 80’s over the most trivial mistakes.”

My favorite part of the book that I enjoyed was towards the end when James visits his moms old home of Suffolk, Virginia. After spending the day venturing through the town and speaking to some people from his moms past he spends the night at a motel. During the night he is suddenly awaken and can’t go back to asleep so he decides to take a walk and winds up gazing at Nansemond river. At this moment is when he felt most connected to the past. He begins to think about his grandmother and how it must have been for her in this town, with a husband who had no love for her, a mother and sisters who lived far away, and her dream of watching her two daughters grow up in America disappear. When James says that “the greatest gift anyone can give anyone else is life. And the greatest sin a person can do to another is to take away that life.” I never felt something more than this because nothing else matters as much as life which is the most precious thing that we all possess.

At the end of the book James lists the accomplishments of he and his siblings. This part really wrapped up everything in terms of their childhood and the hardships they went through. This just showed that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your family situation is, anything is possible. Despite living in a household of twelve children and a single mother, James and his siblings driven by one of their mothers main focuses which was education all ended up accomplishing what they wanted. This part was one of the most touching parts because throughout all the trials and tribulations his mother went through from growing up in a broken home, to having both of her husband’s pass away she never let those situations reflect on how her children were going to grow up. Even though she was working two jobs, was constantly flustered with the kicks of life she still managed to raise twelve pretty great kids. I can connect to this because even though I only grew up in a house of four kids it was still pretty tough sometimes, but what I’ve noticed with my siblings and I is that we never let those past moments define us or alter our decisions. We’ve never used our past as an excuse to not excel in the things we want to accomplish, if anything we use those a reasons to be better and do better.

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The Color of Water an Engaging. (2019, Jan 12). Retrieved from