Book review: The Color of Water

author James McBride and his mother Ruth McBride Jordan with book cover

I am sure I was doing many valuable and useful things with my time back in 1996, but it's clear to me that one thing I was not doing enough of was the reading of excellent memoirs, nor even the reading about the reading of them.

How else to explain my egregious oversight in picking up one of the most engrossing, uplifting and flat-out amazing stories of true life to have hit the bestseller list so late that the 10th anniversary edition has already been in print for four years?

Fortunately, I'm fairly sure it's never too late to read The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. For those of you who weren't of reading age when it first came out (or who, like me, simply had your head stuck somewhere it shouldn't have been and missed it), The Color of Water tells the story of one Ruth McBride, née Ruchel Dwara Zylska, redubbed Rachel Deborah Shilsky by her Polish-Jewish immigrant parents upon their arrival in the U.S., a name the Orthodox-raised Ruth further Anglicized when she did the unthinkable for a rabbi's daughter born in the early part of the 20th century and broke away from her family. To marry a black man. And, after his death and the death of her subsequent husband, ultimately raise 12 children on her own, putting all of them through college.

Such a break! Such a story! And most of all, such a woman! At the core of Ruth McBride's story is the animating truth of the universe, love, love, love, which she freely admits and burns so brightly with, it's positively dazzling, dazzlingly positive. I confess to a certain grudging determination when I picked up the book from a stack of autobiographies at Bart's: I'm reading to learn, I told myself, and I can't learn about what makes a good memoir work unless I read the good memoirs.

Happily, steeling myself for an earnest-but-plodding slog was not only unnecessary, but a dazzling reminder of what a jackass I am, still making assumptions at the ripe old age of almost-49. "Page-turner" barely does this book justice; The Color of Water bubbles, crackles and glows with life, as much because of the brilliant writing skills of Ruth McBride's journalist/jazz musician son, James, as it is because of Ruth's own story. McBride flips between the stories of mother and son, the older story lending perspective to the modern one, the two intertwining in a vivid, real-life display of how our most difficult earthly clashes can become our most glorious heavenly gains.

It's a brilliant accomplishment and a huge gift to the world. If I could travel back in time to have read this 14 years ago, I would. The next best thing I can do is recommend that if you haven't yet, pick up a copy and read it today...


Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Photo of James McBride and Ruth McBride Jordan © Judy Lawne, via Oberlin College's website; image of book cover © Riverhead Books.