“The Color of Water” by James McBride

The Color of WaterTitle: The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
Author: James McBride
ISBN: 9781594481925
Pages: 336
Release date: 1996
Publisher: Riverhead
Genre: Memoir
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection (memoir class)
Rating: 4 out of 5

James McBride, the eighth of twelve children, always wondered why his mother looked so different from his siblings, his stepfather, and everyone else in their predominantly black neighborhood. He badgered her for details all of his life, and when he became a journalist, he began recording her responses.

His mother, he reveals in intertwined interviews and memories through The Color of Water, is always more than she has seemed—more than a Polish immigrant, more than an Orthodox Jew, more than a converted Christian, more than the only white girl in a black neighborhood, more than a survivor of domestic abuse, more than a widower, more even than a mother. Ruth McBride—nee Ruchel Zilska—is a warrior. And she teaches all twelve of her children to fight—for a good education, for equality, for love.

The book, which perched on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, is moving and compulsively readable, with easily grasped morals and a protagonist you can’t help but love.

The best parts by far were the interviews with Ruth, told in stunning prose from her point of view. Here, McBride shows his talents both for journalism and for music, capturing the cadences of her speech and compressing her stories into multifaceted gems. His depiction of her voice is the strongest part of the book. McBride’s chapters on his childhood pale in contrast to his mother’s tales; although his parts were enjoyable, I found myself racing to her next section. I wondered why we didn’t see more from her, until I read in an interview that he’d composed the entire book from her perspective and his editor said McBride should put more of himself in it. And perhaps she was right; The Color of Water was a mega-bestseller.

I also liked the structure of her memories side-by-side with his. In presenting this book to my memoir and essay class, I focused on the strengths and weaknesses of the dual narrative structure (presentation here).

I would recommend this book to middle and high schoolers. McBride’s tribute to his mother is written in simple, digestible prose, and the stories of both his and his mother’s life are compelling and informative.

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy The Color of Water from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

2 replies »

  1. Nice review! I didn’t love this book at first, but as I get more distance from it, the more it grows one me. I don’t think it’s fair to directly compare it to something like This Boy’s Life, which I couldn’t help at the time. As a standalone (especially for younger or newer readers) it’s pretty solid.


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