James McBride spends most of his life in a quest to discover his heritage, and he documents both his life and his journey in The Color of Water. He is thrust upon this quest by his need to understand his mother's past because only then will he understand some of his own inner turmoil and confusion.
In the beginning of the book, James says he was always consumed with the need to know more about his mother. Part of his curiosity stems from the fact that his father died just before he was born, and his seven older siblings teased him about being adopted. He naturally had questions, but when his mother consistently refused to answer them, James's need to know only increased.
Though he is a pretty good student and young man, he always wants to know more about his mother's heritage. He asks Ruth all the time, but she never answers him. When his stepfather dies, James is now the oldest of five siblings and his mother goes rather crazy in her grief. Soon James is failing in school and living a rather illegal and unprofitable life. Others do not see much value in him, and this behavior continues until Ruth moves her family and James starts in a new school. In both failure and success, James is unsettled and wonders who he really is. This wondering causes him to be discontent and unsure about himself for most of his growing-up years.
Though he finally achieves success and even goes to college, James still suffers from his desire to make sense of so many things in his mother's life, things which will also help him understand himself. Finally, after his mother reveals just a little about her past, James is able to discover who his mother really is and the heritage from which she came.
Eventually James is at peace, having discovered what he has longed to know for so many years. So many things now make sense to him, and he finally has a sense of peace about who he is. At the end of the journey, James's relationship with his mother is intact, and both of them are content with his knowing what she so valiantly kept hidden for so many years.