The Novel the Color of Water

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Updated: Apr 11, 2019
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The novel The Color of Water by James McBride explores different perspectives on religion and race mixing. The novel goes back and forth between Ruth’s perspective and James’ perspective. I think that both of their upbringings really mirror each other. However, there are some differences as Ruth just accepted discrimination, James fought back and continuously pushed for why differences mattered what he could do to stop it. One of the main themes that overlap include, discrimination and race and that relationship with religion.

Ruth was born in Poland under the Orthodox Jewish religion and she later moved to America when she was two. Growing up in America her family suffered due to her father’s job as a Rabbi which would later place them in Virginia running a grocery store in a prominent black neighborhood. One of the most difficult parts of Ruth’s childhood was the inequality that lurked around. Living in Suffolk was for both poor African Americans as well as White people. She also had to deal with the stress of the Klu Klux Klan who despised African Americans and Jewish people. In high school Ruth caused upstir by getting pregnant with Peter’s child. This would start her migration to New York. After aborting the baby and going back to Virginia Ruth was unable to marry Peter and unable to attend graduation, forcing her to leave for New York once again. Ruth lived a difficult life in between times during her stay in New York but was lucky to have help from Andrew. Ruth later married Andrew, an African American man, and was shut out from her family. She has a lot of different worldviews stemming from her Orthodox Jewish heritage, her racial background as a white woman, and her conversion into christianity, yet living in a black neighborhood with mixed race children.

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One of the struggles James faced was not having a father figure present. His own father died before he was born and then his step father passed away from a stroke. From there James began to act angry at the situation. James found a new father figure in Chicken man who wanted the best for James and taught him the importance of helping himself and how important it is to be educated. James knew he was different from his mother because of their skin color. He always questioned his mother about his heritage and she dodged all of them. While James’ mother wanted the best schooling for her she unknowingly put him in a similar position of discrimination that she suffered when going to school. After the death of his step father James began to act out in criminal offenses. This leads him to later join the Civil Rights movement causing a rift between him and his mother. Later in life James goes in search of answers for his lost heritage and racial identity. He went to Suffolk and did digging through the old family house and the synagogue they used to attend. James’ finally sets himself forward to helping his mother regain her identity and thus healing the family’s doubts.
I felt really frustrated with Ruth’s character. Ruth wanted the best for her children but never listened to them. When James was acting out angry over the death of Hunter, Ruth just pushed him away. I felt like that’s the way Ruth answered a lot of the problems between the family was through pushing them away and keeping everything obscure. I think that her religious upbringing is what made her act this way. Being Orthodox Jewish she doesn’t display emotions. So this lack of emotions plays a role as to why she treats her children the way she does. I also think that with her strained relationship between her mother and father had also made it difficult for herself to be a good mother. She lost communication between her mother and father, her aunt, and her sister who all shunned her and turned her away. I think that she possibly had good intentions about wanting to spare her children the same harassment and discrimination she experienced growing up, but it wasn’t the best method. In his acknowledgement James considers his mother to have a lot of love for himself and his family, so while she was a frustrating character she also had the best intentions at heart.
Going forward within Ethnic Studies, I think that anti-semitism and racism are major issues. Any form of discrimination against a religion, culture, or race is unnecessary in society. I also believe that in relation to ethnic studies James was trapped unable to fully accept himself under hyper and hypodescent. He struggled with high school, college, and his professional life and how his identity would haunt all these aspects. James accepting his Jewish culture at the end surprised me. Also in the epilogue was surprising to show that even though Ruth denounced her Jewish side she still felt connected to the religion. Being someone who has also denounced their own religion I understand the feeling of being tied to it since it’s been apart of yourself most of your life. James never got to feel that full tie growing up Christian.

Altogether there are aspects from The Color of Water I would have enjoyed had it been written differently. I was confused in the early part of the book how it bounced around between James’ and Ruth’s perspective. There were also a few moments when the timeline shifted back and forth between different time periods of their lives. It was slightly confusing as to make a definitive timeline of events. There were also a few characters that I felt were so small like Peter who could have been left out. I think I also would have enjoyed it written as two separate novels: one focused on the mother’s upbringing and life, and a part two about how James’ thought and experienced life with his mother. The format is still acceptable as is for other readers, I just felt confused with the constant changing thought patterns.

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The novel The Color of Water. (2019, Apr 11). Retrieved from