Thursday, October 17, 2013

James McBride's The Color of Water

OK! Now I know why my sister is in love with Mr. McBride. How it is that I never read this book when it was the hot thing and the subject of every book discussion for miles around, I'll never know. Especially since I've been in an interracial relationship for almost ten years, you'd think this story of Mr. McBride's white, Jewish mom and black dad would have crossed my radar screen before! And, may I say, James McBride has the best author website I've ever visited.

Thanks to Don for pushing me to the head of the line. This is for Cynthia who, I believe, is half in love with the man. Yes, I got an autographed copy of his new book The Good Lord Bird.

So, my FB friends know that I had the opportunity to hear James speak at the National book festival on the mall in Washington. Now I've heard through the library grapevine that he'll be speaking here in Ft. Myers (so sorry it's spelled wrong on his website) in a couple of weeks. So, the pressure is on. I'd like to get The Good Lord Bird, my own autographed copy mind you, read before I go see him again. I was pleased as punch to see that his latest novel, about a boy, disguised as a girl, who fought alongside the abolitionist John Brown, has been nominated for The National Book Award.

The Color of Water was written well before there was a President Obama but I must say, he crossed my mind quite often during the reading. He briefly touched on his difficulties trying to straddle two worlds in his first memoir, Dreams from my Father, and McBride delves deeply into the divided loyalties that a bi-racial child feels and senses when his folks are "different." Race and identity are at the core of this remarkable story.

Rachel Shilsky, daughter of an Orthodox rabbi,  grew up in a Virginia town that thought about as much of Jews as it did of the negroes - not much! Her father, supposedly a man of God, ran a grocery store with his invalid wife, worked his kids to the bone, and nursed his own prejudices by cheating his black customers. He never intuited the irony of his hatred of the "Schwarz."

By the time she finished high school, Rachel, now called Ruth, would leave Virginia for the bright lights, big city with Dennis, the black man who was the love of her life. McBride does a masterful job of letting Ruth tell her story in alternating chapters with his own story. Thus we learn that, facing overwhelming odds as an interracial couple in the '40's, Ruth and Dennis were inseparable, embraced by the black community in Harlem, starting a family and a church in that order.

This book is full of love, pathos, understanding and humor. McBride is disarmingly honest about his feelings for his "mommy," especially his growing understanding that she didn't look like him and his curiosity about this fact. He speaks proudly of his eleven, yup, count 'em, brothers and sisters and with such honesty when he writes of his rebellious years, the drugs, guns, and bad company that could have taken him down the wrong path. There isn't a false note when he credits his mother and his God for his turnaround.

Reading is a natural catalyst for self-examination. I couldn't help but marvel at this woman, Ruth Jordan, at her courage and fortitude in pursuing what at the time was surely a "forbidden" love, realizing that she would never see her mother or sister again, that she was dead to her family. As often happens I wondered if I would have stood up for my beliefs under similar circumstances, choosing to teach my children that we are not black, red, or white but, rather, the color of water.

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