What is Ruth's conflict in The Color of Water?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Because eNotes allows only one question per post, your other questions were edited out. James McBride's story The Color of Water relates his journey, partway through his life, to discover who he is and from where he came. To do that, he had to get his mother Ruth to reveal her past. The story is told in alternating chapters as each of them tells their stories.

James is a confused young man, and much of that is due to the confusion he senses in his mother. Ruth is Jewish and was born in Poland; her parents were not in love, and her father made it clear he only married his wife to get to America. He terrorized his family, but he was also a rabbi, albeit not a particularly good or godly one. He was a cruel man who sexually abused Ruth and wanted to marry her off for his own gain.

Because of all this, Ruth lived a life of conflict. She grows up ashamed of who she is until she finally finds acceptance and lives her life in the black community. Though it is a dangerous time for interratial relationships, during the course of her life Ruth marries two black, Christian men. She lives her entire life trying to deny her Jewish heritage and her race.

She never talks about being white, but everyone knows she is. She never talks about her Jewish heritage and actually adopts the Christian faith. She lives in a black community but sends her children to the best white schools, usually Jewish. The older children all seem to find a way to either ignore their mother's eccentricities and secrets or become outspoken proponents of the Civil Rights movement. James's life, however, reflects his mother's confusion and conflict.

Ruth's conflict is simple: she spends her entire adult life living a lie and denying the truth of her abusive, white, Jewish past. Only when Ruth helps James understand her past is he able to answer the questions and uncertainties which plagued him as a young man.



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