How is James McBride's use of imagery important to his novel The Color of Water?

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

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The Color of Water, by James McBride, is the story of McBride's journey to learn who he is by discovering the places from which he came. That does not seem like a particularly difficult task except that his mother is a compilation of contradictions and she refuses, for most of his life, to speak a word about her past. His mother, Ruth, tells her own story in alternating chapters of this book.

Many terrible things happen in this novel, both to Ruth and to McBride; McBride's use of imagery creates a believable story which captures our sympathy but also reveals the quirkiness and exceptionality of McBride's family.

Consider the following quote as an example of McBride's effective use of imagery to help the reader understand what this journey was like for him:

I felt like a Tinkertoy kid building my own self out of one of those toy building sets; for as she laid her life before me, I reassembled the tableau of her words like a picture puzzle, and as I did, so my own life was rebuilt. 

This is an astounding and relatable picture of what it must have been like for McBride to only have scattered bits of information about his mother's life with which he had to reconstruct his mother's past and discover his heritage.

When Ruth's second husband dies, she is distraught and brokenhearted but still has to maintain a household and take care of her young children. McBride describes his mother's grieving process this way:

Mommy staggered about in an emotional stupor for nearly a year. But while she weebled and wobbled and leaned, she did not fall. 

What a wonderful use of imagery to depict a woman on the verge of surrendering to her grief but holding on and finally getting through it. 

This is a fascinating story; what makes it poignant and satisfying to read is McBride's effective use of imagery. 

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