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James McBride's autobiography, The Color of Water, recounts his search for answers he did not get from his mother when he was growing up. Late in her life, his mother, Ruth, shares just a little of her past with James, and he begins a quest to discover his mother's heritage--and of course his own. She eventually tells her own story, which is recounted in the odd-numbered chapters of the book.
Clearly the most significant thing that James values is the truth about his mother's past. While James knows about his father's family, his rather eccentric mother says nothing about her life before marrying James's father. This might not be a significant omission for some people, but for James it is the driving force for much of his life.
James always had questions about his rather quirky mother, a woman who lived her life boldly as if she were black though she was clearly white. While Ruth insisted on the best educations for her children (usually in Jewish schools), she consistently gave them conflicting messages about Jews. So many things about his mother were confusing to James, and he always felt that if he could discover his mother's past he could better face his own future.
James is called a "tragic mulatto" by someone at school, contributing to his identity confusion. As he becomes a teenager, this confusion results in failing grades and a rather criminal life. Though he eventually recovers and goes on to become a successful adult, he is only satisfied after his questions have been answered. This need to know his heritage prompts him to value what he discovers.
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