Thursday, August 13, 2009
The Color of Water, A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother
It's amazing how some moms can totally seem to live in chaos and yet their kids get exactly enough to make it when they grow up. James McBride is a writer/musician who, after many jobs that just couldn't hold his interest very long, began to poke and pry in his mother's past, a past she tried desperately to keep from her children. It took almost a decade to uncover, but finally, in bits and pieces, he assembled much of the puzzle that was his mother. It's as unlikely a story as you'll ever come across proving that truth CAN be stranger than fiction.
A Polish immigrant born in the twenties, Ruchel, aka Rachel, aka Ruth, does her best to adapt to a new home under her father's strict household, in a strict Orthodox Jewish family. Her mother, crippled by polio, silently but heroically puts up with a domineering, emotionally cruel husband and does her best to help her children cope, but eventually the family is torn apart by the father's abuse. Ruth runs away from her family's home in Virginia, to Harlem, New York City to start her own life.
She falls in love with a black man, forbidden not just by white society in general, but a sin worthy of ostracism by her family. They even hold a funeral service for her as if she was dead. She faces challenges not just from white people but she gets a few stares from black people as well. She ignores all of it. When the children start coming, she tries to create the best world for them she can, despite poverty and prejudice.
Interwoven in her story, is James' story of his growing up years. He eloquently tries to explain his confusion as a child. Why did his mommy look different from mommies in the neighborhood? What color was she? What color was he? His world comes crashing down around his ears when his stepfather dies, and as a troubled young teenager, turns to drugs and alcohol for a time. When he realizes that he will not get anywhere on that track, he comes back to his mother's home to try to do what she always said to do. Get an education and make something of yourself. "Money is worth nothing with an empty mind."
Incredible. I would recommend this book for teens. There is some swearing and mention of out of wedlock babies, sexual abuse, and drugs and such, but it's not more graphic than most PG-13 movies they see today and the consequences of such actions are not glorified or condoned. This would be an excellent book to discuss with teens about looking beyond skin color and improving oneself despite one's circumstances. This is a must read. For other books by James McBride go to his website.