The Color of Water

by James McBride

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What is the author's style in The Color of Water by James McBride?

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The style of The Color of Water set the tone for the book and added to the meaning. McBride's mother had a very tough life, but she was able to connect with her son and tell him how proud she was of him. She always stressed education and prayer as important tools he could use to succeed in life. McBride wrote this book as a tribute to his mother, who helped shape his life.

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The author of The Color of Water, James McBride, uses two very distinct styles in order to convey the different points of view and backgrounds of he and his mother in his memoir/autobiography.

For example, in the odd chapters, he writes in the first-person point of view of...

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his mother, and he uses italics to convey that they are her actual words from an interview. The style is very informal and conversational. For example, in the chapter entitled "Kosher," his mother is describing the many strict, idiosyncratic rules of Judaism to her son, who was not raised in that culture. In her words, he writes:

You need to read up on it because I ain't no expert. They got folks who write whole books about it, go find them and ask them! Or read the Bible! Shoot! Who am I? I ain't nobody! I can't be telling the world this! I don't know! (p. 17)

In contrast, in the even chapters, McBride describes his childhood experiences using a very formal, descriptive tone with figurative language and imagery in order to help the reader picture what is happening. For example, when describing how his white mother rode a bicycle in their black neighborhood he writes:

She rode so slowly that if you looked at her from a distance it seemed as if she weren't moving, the image frozen, painted against the spring sky, a middle-aged white woman on an antique bicycle with black kids zipping past her on Sting-Ray bikes and skateboards, popping wheelies and throwing baseballs that whizzed past her head, tossing firecrackers that burst all around her (p.8)

McBride uses these starkly different styles to serve different purposes. In the odd chapters, he is strictly providing his mother's version of her life from her point of view, so he sticks to the language she used during her interviews. The informal style of her dialogue, such as her use of slang and vernacular, reveal her background: she was a child of immigrant parents who was forced to work hard from a young age and, therefore, had a limited education, so she had to be tough and direct.

On the other hand, McBride's eloquent, descriptive voice reveals how different his life's path was from his mother's. It was clear that he had formal training in writing and a great education (because of her). Although she was poor and uneducated and had to raise twelve children with little help, she instilled the importance of education and faith in her children, which meant that his accomplishment of becoming a writer was also hers, and his memoir was a tribute to her.

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The Color of Water is a combined autobiography and memoir. In the odd-numbered chapters, McBride tells the story of his mother in her own voice, and these chapters use italics. He is able to capture the voice of his mother, a Jewish woman who later told her children that she was a light-skinned black woman. For example, in Chapter 1, he writes in his mother's voice, "My family mourned me when I married your father. They said kaddish and sat shiva" (page 2). He uses the Hebrew words that his mother might have used as a child, and he captures his mother's world. 

In even-numbered chapters, he tells his own story in a non-italicized font. He writes about his confusion about his mother's identity in his own voice, one that is very different from that of his mother. He writes, for example, "Mommy's contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars in Coney Island" (page 29). Eventually, he puts together the story of his mother's identity in a memoir that is made more powerful by combining his voice with that of his mother. 

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Please explain a quote from The Color of Water, by James McBride, which shows the writing style of the author.

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. 

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Please explain a quote from The Color of Water, by James McBride, which shows the characterization in the novel.

The Color of Water was written by James McBride and tells both his story and his mother's in alternating chapters. Each of them is on a journey. McBride's is a journey from boyhood to adult in search of his heritage, something he always felt was somehow hidden from him. Ruth's is a journey from silence to revelation as she reveals the past she has kept hidden for so long. Characterization is important in this novel because of McBride's quest to find his identity (the characteristics which represent who he is).

McBride uses several techniques to portray his characters, and all of them are found in the following quote. As a boy, McBride sees that his mother cries during church and it upsets him. When he asks her about it, Ruth says she cries in church because God makes her happy. This does not make sense to her son, though he tells her he understands. To him, her tears seem to come from somewhere very deep inside her, a "place far away, a place inside her that she never let any of us children visit." Even though he is young, McBride can sense her pain.

On the way home from church, the two of them have this short but poignant conversation:

I thought it was because she wanted to be black like everyone else in church, because maybe God liked black people better, and one afternoon on the way home from church I asked her whether God was black or white. 
A deep sigh. "Oh boy… God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit… God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color."

Notice several things. First, McBride tells his readers what he thinks but follows it up with the truth, in this case provided by his mother directly. Second, he uses a combination of narration and dialogue, and the dialogue is perfectly suited to each character. In this case, Ruth talks to him in her rhythmical black dialect (which, by the way, is part of why he is so confused about his racial identity). Finally, he repeats key words and phrases to reinforce his characterization. Notice how many times race is mentioned in this short exchange with his mother; that is not surprising, because race is one of the mysterious things about her, both for McBride and for the reader. 

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Please explain a quote in The Color of Water by James McBride which shows his theme.

James McBride wrote The Color of Water as an autobiographical reflection of his journey to discover his past, for he was always aware that what happened before him was a major factor in who he became. The piece of his past he had to discover was his mother's past, as he knew anything he wanted to know about the men she married. His mother, Ruth, on the other hand, adamantly (and successfully) kept her past hidden from her children.

James has always known his mother is obviously not a black woman, and her beliefs about religion, education, and family are in distinct conflict with the way she lives her life and raises her children. While his siblings do not appear to be as affected by these contradictions, James is, and this need to unveil his past consumes him. When Ruth finally gives him a kernel of information from which he can search, James begins to delve into his mother's (and therefore his own) past. 

While he does discover the answers to most of his questions and finds that they do help him sort out his own life, his greatest discovery is that the past is a disappointing--and in some ways a non-existent--entity.

Sometimes without conscious realization, our thoughts, our faith, our interests are entered into the past. We talk about other times, other places, other persons, and lose our living hold on the present. Sometimes we think if we could just go back in time we would be happy. But anyone who attempts to reenter the past is sure to be disappointed. Anyone who has ever revisited the place of his birth after years of absence is shocked by the differences between the way the place actually is, and the way he has remembered it. He may walk along old familiar streets and roads, but he is a stranger in a strange land. He has thought of this place as home, but he finds he is no longer here even in spirit. He has gone onto a new and different life, and in thinking longingly of the past, he has been giving thought and interest to something that no longer really exists.

This quote displays McBride's understanding that living in the present is much more productive, and certainly more real, than dwelling on the things which are past. He is able to reconcile his mother's past with her actions, which helps him better understand his own place (culture, heritage, family, history) in the world. And then he is able to put these things where they belong--in the past. 

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