In The Color of Water, Ruth McBride-Jordan escapes from an abusive background by changing her culture, her religion, and even, as far as possible, her race. Her family was Jewish, and her father had hoped to become a rabbi, but by the time Ruth was a child, he had failed in this ambition and kept a store in Suffolk, Virginia. He became increasingly embittered and abusive in his behavior to Ruth and her mother, and Ruth fled to New York, where she married a Black man, converted to Christianity, and raised a large family, which eventually included twelve children. One of these was the author, James McBride.
When McBride was growing up, his mother appeared to be a light-skinned Black woman and a devout Christian, heavily involved with the church. It was the book that eventually became The Color of Water which finally moved Ruth to face and accept her past, when the author asked to interview her for it.
Slowly and reluctantly, Ruth began to collaborate with her son on the book. She talked about her childhood self as a separate person, but uncovered many memories she had never shared with anyone before. Eventually, the two of them returned to Ruth's childhood home in Suffolk, Virginia, which she had not seen for fifty years. There, Ruth found the address of a childhood friend in the library and reestablished contact with her, and she finally came to make peace with her troubled past.