Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Color of Water

I must start off by saying that this is not a children's book. From the title, it's clearly something interesting and unusual, and what's more, an honoring gesture toward a parent. But this book is full of sadness and heartache that I could not recommend as good reading for children. That being said, it is truly an amazing story.

James McBride constructs this memoir in an unusual way, alternating between his mother's first-hand account of her life, which (I believe) he recorded on tape during an interview with her, and his own story that he narrates. With the chapter titles, he cleverly compares and contrasts their two stories.

Quite simply put, Ruth Jordan immigrated to the states with her Jewish family and was raised as a Jew in the South, were they did not have a large community. And what community was there was not very fond of Ruth's family because her father was a hard man who cared only for money. He owned and ran a store in the black part of town, cheating any customers (usually black folks) out of every penny he could. But Ruth learned to love and trust the black people (who during this time could have been killed for being in a relationship with a white woman.) Her family life was not good, and she had few friends, and a serious heartbreak; so while she was still fairly young, she ran away to New York where some of her mother's Jewish family lived. Eventually, she married a black man (Andrew McBride), became a Christian, and lived with him in the black community.

Her story is brim-full of racial and family tensions. Her Jewish family basically considered her dead, and she had left that part of her life completely behind anyway. But even though she had her own family and her own life, there was still a lot of sadness. Her husband died suddenly one day, leaving her with seven children and another on the way. She later married a man named Jordan with whom she had four more children, completing the even dozen.

Of course, the number of children recalls to mind the charming classic Cheaper By The Dozen. The number of kids is the same, yes, but the similarity stops there. This family lived in the projects in Brooklyn. Their family and home were abominably disorganized, and it seems like day by day, they were often just scraping by. Add on top of that, the emerging black pride movement, and the family was practically exploding with civil rights angst and confusion between embarrassment of, fear for, and pride in their white mother.

The thing that holds this book (and family) together is Ruth Jordan's violent faith and complete trust in Jesus Christ. Her first husband, Andrew McBride became a Baptist minister. Together with his wife, they built a church in the middle of the projects. She loved Jesus and firmly believed in his provision for her family. While on one hand, it may seem like there was no end to the sadness in her life--especially when her second husband died. The book is a triumphant journal of her faith in Jesus Christ and how he helped her complete the task she had as a mother. There is an impressive list at the end of the book; her legacy, if you will. It lists every child, their undergraduate degrees, any graduate degrees, and current jobs. (I believe one or two may not have completed their undergrad by the writing of the book.) James also tells a heartwarming story of their current holidays when all the family gathers at Ruth's place, where it sounds like she will always and forever rule the roost.

This book as a whole has some tremendously and powerfully sad moments that cut me deeply as I read them--not something I'm usually excited to do. However, it also has such an uplifting and delightful ending that I have to recommend it as a book worth the reading. (I would just recommend spacing it out and reading some Dr. Seuss in between chapters...or a contrasting flavor of your own choice.)

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