There are two voices who speak in The Color of Water, by James McBride; the chapters alternate between the storytelling voices of McBride and his mother, Ruth. Given not only the difference in their ages and experiences but also in their personalities, it is not surprising that the two voices sound distinctly different.
Ruth is a practical, no-nonsense woman who is also rather eccentric and scatterbrained. She does not waste a lot of words talking about things that do not matter to to her, and this sparseness is demonstrated in her dialogue. She does not seek pity for what is and is finally free to speak of what was without the emotions she felt while living it. Note the consistency of her voice in the following two lines, spoken by Ruth at different times in the book:
“See, a marriage needs love. And God. And a little money. That's all.”
“I was ashamed of my mother, but see, love didn't come natural to me until I became a Christian."
Though she was not a black woman, Ruth lived as if she were one for so long that her speech has the cadence and syntax of the women she lived near for so many years.
This naturally carries over into McBride's chapters when he quotes his mother:
I asked her if I was black or white. She replied, "You are a human being. Educate yourself or you'll be a nobody!”
McBride's chapters are full of his own musings as well as the factual happenings in his life, and his writing is a blend of specific details and effective imagery. The following is an example of McBride's use of imagery:
It was always so hot, and everyone was so polite, and everything was all surface but underneath it was like a bomb waiting to go off. I always felt that way about the South, that beneath the smiles and southern hospitality and politeness were a lot of guns and liquor and secrets.
It is effective because it is not overdone.
When he is simply recounting the events of his life, he is less poetic but still manages to pack a lot of details into a sentence, as in the following:
[S]ince I was a little boy, she had always wanted me to go. She was always sending me off on a bus someplace, to elementary school, to camp, to relatives in Kentucky, to college. She pushed me away from her just as she'd pushed my elder siblings away when we lived in New York, literally shoving them out the front door when they left for college.
Aside from his use of dialogue, which is essential to this retelling, the above quote is a good example of McBride's writing style. He tells what happened--all of it--but he does not want sympathy or pity. He simply writes his life and allows his readers to feel--or not feel--what they wish about it.