The Color of Water is a unique story, part James McBride's autobiography and part his mother's memoir. The chapters alternate between these two voices and continuously shift between the past and the present. McBride's mother is a white, Jewish woman who never talks about either thing to her children; in fact, she lives most of her life unwaveringly as a black woman, determined not to allow anything about her past to influence her children's futures. As a consequence, people look at all of the McBrides quite differently.
James McBride's father dies before he is born, and he is raised by his kind step-father, Hunter Jordan. Unfortunately, Jordan dies when McBride is fourteen, which plummets McBride's mother into a new kind of craziness and causes McBride to begin a downward spiral, as well.
While everyone knows that his older siblings are all relatively successful, McBride is viewed (with good reason) as a miscreant destined for trouble. Though his mother has always been seen as rather eccentric, she has always been single-minded about her children getting an exceptional education. After Jordan dies, things descend into chaos and McBride fails his classes. Nothing his mother or older siblings do has any affect on McBride, so his mother sends him away to Kentucky to stay with one of his older sisters. Others surely see McBride as a failure.
McBride gets a true "street education" in Kentucky, but things begin to change for him when his mother moves McBride and his younger siblings to Delaware. He stops his thug behavior and gets motivated to attend college, and now people see him as successful.
All of the oldest McBride children suffer some confusion about their race identification in some form; most of them fully embrace their black heritage. James, however, is the only one who yearns to know his mother's secrets and suffers from a deep-seated identity crisis because she refuses to talk about it. The people around the McBrides, their neighbors and friends, see the eccentricities but overlook them because the results are positive--until James.
The end of the story is positive, as James finally discovers his mother's history and makes sense of so many things in his own life.