The Color of Water by James McBride

Start Your Free Trial

What happens in The Color of Water?

In The Color of Water, author James McBride alternates between telling his life story and the life story of his mother, Ruth. Ruth ran away from her Jewish family and married James' father, with whom she had eight children. James grew up in a large household, where his mother was strict, but loving. Ruth died in her home on January 9th, 2010.

  • Ruth runs away from her overbearing father, washing her hands of her Jewish heritage. In her new life, she finds happiness with Dennis, an African American man with whom she has eight children.

  • After Dennis' death, Ruth struggles to support her family. She then remarries and has four children with her second husband.

  • Ruth is a demanding and yet loving mother who insists that her children get an education. James grows up in a large, busy household and has a strong connection with his mother. Ruth dies in Ewing, New Jersey in 2010.

Download The Color of Water Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Chapter 1 Summary

Note: The chapters in The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother alternate between the stories of Ruth and her son, the author. All the odd-numbered chapters are written in memoir form, with the mother telling her life story to her son. In the book, those chapters are presented in italics.

James McBride’s mother was born Ruchel Dwanra Zylska, an Orthodox Jew, in Poland on April 1, 1921. She no longer remembers the name of the town. When her parents came to America they changed her name to Rachel Deborah Shilsky, and she changed it once more, to Ruth, in 1941 when she left Virginia for good. She had to leave that name—and her past—behind her so she could really live. She has been dead to her family for fifty years.

Ruth is dead to them now. They want no part of her, just as she wants no part of them. Her son wants to talk to them, but Ruth tells him he would be better off watching The Three Stooges, for Tateh would “have a heart attack” if he saw his grandson James.

When Ruth marries her husband, James’s father, her family mourns for her. Orthodox Jews say kaddish and sit sheva when a loved one is lost, and they do that for their daughter. They pray, turn mirrors down, sit on boxes for seven days, and cover their heads. They have lots of rules but not a lot of love. Fishel Shilsky, Ruth’s father, is an orthodox rabbi who escaped from the Russian army and sneaked across the border to Poland. His marriage to Ruth’s mother was arranged. He always teases that he is quite slick at getting out of adverse situations, and it was true of him as long as she knew him. His family calls him Tateh, which means “father” in Yiddish. He wears the same clothes throughout his life, including a tallis on his shirtsleeve; he wears them until they are beyond wearing because he is cheap. He moves quickly when needed and is a hard man.

Ruth’s mother, Hudis, is the antithesis of her father. She was born in Dobryzn, Poland, in 1896; however, no one there would have any record of Hudis or her family. Any Jews who did not escape Poland before Hitler arrived there were eradicated during his regime. She is very pretty but was paralyzed on her left side by polio and suffers generally poor health because of it. Her left hand is crippled and useless, she is blind in her left eye, and she drags her left foot behind her as she walks. She is a shy, quiet woman; her children call her Mameh. She is the one person Ruth feels she did “not do right by.”

Chapter 2 Summary

A few months before he dies, James’s stepfather finds a blue bicycle on the streets of Brooklyn and walks it home. It is a huge, clunky, old-fashioned bike with a motorized horn. Riding a bicycle becomes one of his mother’s two new hobbies (playing the piano is the other). James is fourteen when the man he called Daddy died at the age of seventy-two.

Hunter Jordan is steady and quiet and gentle. He marries James’s mother, a white, Jewish woman with eight children. James is the youngest, less than a year old at the time. Hunter and Ruth have four more children, and he loves them all as if...

(The entire section is 18,291 words.)