The narrator of his experiences growing up in a Brooklyn housing project with a Jewish mother, James McBride describes his personal confusion about race and identity, the initial impulse to discover his mother's history, his evolution into music and writing, and his ultimate endeavor to tell his mother's story - a story that is, at heart, his own.
Born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska on April 1, 1921, in Poland, Ruth McBride Jordan (or "Mommy"), the mother of twelve children, was born into an Orthodox Jewish family and raised in a violent Southern town. At nineteen, she moved into a new life in New York City, where she fell in love with a black Baptist minister named Andrew McBride. When she married McBride, she was pronounced "dead" by her Jewish relations.
A good-natured furnace fireman for the New York Housing Authority, Hunter Jordan was Ruth's second husband and the father of the four youngest children. He spent his entire life savings to buy Ruth and the children a house in Queens.
A Russian Orthodox Jew, Tateh (or Fishel Shilsky) married Hudis in Poland in an arranged marriage. The couple emigrated to America, where Tateh worked as a traveling Orthodox rabbi. He forced the family to settle in Suffolk, where he opened a grocery store and treated his family very poorly. After a long-term affair with a woman in town, Tateh divorced Hudis.
A Polish Orthodox Jew crippled by polio as a child, Mameh (or Hudis Shilsky) was a gentle and good Jewish wife. She bore her husband, Fishel, one son and two daughters, and never learned to speak English, even though she lived in America for many years. Mameh passed away shortly after Ruth (or Rachel) left for New York.
Ruth's grandfather on her mother's side, Zaydeh wore a dark suit and a long beard. When he passed away, it was Ruth's first encounter with death.
Ruth's grandmother on her mother's side, Bubeh, a diabetic, housed Ruth when she arrived in New York and worked in her aunt's leather factory. Bubeh passed away during Ruth's trip home to care for her ailing mother.
Ruth's first husband, Andrew McBride (or Dennis), became a Baptist minister, and the couple founded the New Brown Memorial Church in the Red Hook housing project. He passed away at forty-five of lung cancer, and James is the last of his children. Andrew McBride, whom Ruth described as a man with "vision", died before James was born.
James's stepsister and his father's daughter from a previous marriage, Jacqueline (affectionately called "Jack") served as more of an aunt than a sister to James. During high school, when James rebelled against his mother and school, Ruth sent him to Kentucky to stay with Jack.
Ruth's younger sister, Dee-Dee (or Gladys) grew up more Americanized than Ruth or Sam. Ruth promised Dee-Dee she would not leave her, but broke the promise. Later, when Ruth contacted Dee-Dee for help, she was reminded of the broken promise and shut out.
Ruth's older brother, Sam ran away to Chicago at fifteen to escape his father's tyranny. He was later killed during World War II.
The second eldest of the sisters, Helen was the most artistic of the siblings. She grew to become a full-fledged hippie, ran away from home, and returned five years later with a nursing degree and a child.
Ruth's only friend during her childhood in Suffolk, Frances lived in a house on the other side of the cemetery. As James explored his mother's history for the book, he successfully tracked her down, and his mother and Frances resumed their friendship in old age.
A young black man living in one of the houses down the road behind the store, Peter became Ruth's first lover. She fell in love with him at fifteen, and became pregnant. After an abortion in New York, Ruth returned to Suffolk and learned that Peter was due to marry a black girl he had also made pregnant.
The youngest of Mameh's sisters, Aunt Betsy helped Ruth procure an abortion in New York City. Years later, Aunt Betsy slammed the door in Ruth's face, but Ruth was never angry, still grateful for the help she offered in the past.
A drunk who hung out on "The Corner" in Louisville, Kentucky, Chicken Man offered James worldly advice. In the end, a woman stabbed him to death.
The obese owner of a leather-goods factory in New York City, Aunt Mary hired Ruth when she graduated from high school. Ruth met her first husband, Dennis, at the factory, where he was Aunt Mary's best artisan.
The fifty-five year old manager of a manicure shop (and sometime pimp) in Harlem, Rocky hired Ruth at nineteen. Over time, he set her up in her own apartment in Harlem, took her out to clubs, and prepared her to become a prostitute.
Dennis's favorite aunt, the elderly Aunt Candis traveled to New York from North Carolina to help Ruth with her eight children after Dennis passed away.
The son of the man who eventually took over Shilsky's store, Aubrey Rubenstein offered James a better view of the history of the Jewish community in Suffolk.
David Lee Preston
One of James's best adulthood friends, David Lee Preston is a Jewish reporter who invited Ruth to attend his traditional Jewish wedding.
The Color of Water Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Color of Water is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Tateh ruled his household without love: he did not love his wife, he sexually abused Ruth, and he practically enslaved his son Sam. Ruth ran her household with a similarly tight rein, disciplining her children with the belt and instituting an...
James remembers how his mother often sought out things that were Jewish, even though she outwardly rejected her past life as Rachel Shilsky. She exhibited contradictory feelings, and shocked James when she spoke fluent Yiddish with the merchants...