The Color of Water

The Color of Water Summary and Analysis of Chapters 9-12

Suffolk, Ruth explains, was racially divided, with an all-white school and an all-black school. The discrimination against Jews was similarly pervasive: she changed her name from Rachel to Ruth because it seemed less "Jewish". She made only one friend, a girl named Frances, with whom she spent hours talking in the cemetery. The ghosts, she recalls, never bothered her then. Frances's family was poor, but "back then it was a different kind of poor. A better kind of poor, but poor just the same. What I mean by that is you didn't need money as much, but you didn't have any neither." Some people in the town were so poor that they caught huge turtles to make soup. Ruth always had enough to eat in her house, but she was starving for love and affection, both of which were in short supply in the Shilsky household.

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 in Manhattan's Lower East Side, where they went to buy their school clothes. When choosing a public school for her children to attend, Ruth ensured that they attended predominantly Jewish public schools, even though getting to these schools were often very far away. The McBride children were nearly always the token blacks in their classes, and as James grew older he became increasingly confused about his own racial identity. Once, he even remembers asking if he was black or white, to which Ruth responded: "You're a human being...Educate yourself or you'll be a nobody...If you're a nobody... it doesn't matter what color you are." Ruth made sure that her children attended every free event New York City had to offer: "festivals, zoos, parades, block parties, libraries, concerts." In retrospect, James realizes that they never felt deprived or poor. In the house, the question of race was "ignorable".

Ruth was a rebellious girl who hated her father, and since her father hated blacks - and especially black men - it made sense for her to fall in love with a black man. In those days, she explains, interracial relationships were intensely dangerous, as black men were hanged in the South for even looking at a white woman. Ruth longed for romance, but no one ever asked her on a date until, one day, a young black man began visiting the store and asking her how she was doing. She had always liked the black people in the town because they never judged her. This young man, Peter, was tall and handsome, and he soon became her boyfriend. One day, he flat-out asked Ruth if she would go for a walk. She said yes: "I was naïve and young and before you know it I fell in love with him." After dating Peter for some time, Ruth realized that her period was late, and soon understood that it wasn't coming at all. The year was 1936, and she was scared Peter would be killed. Some of Peter's friends knew about the pregnancy and were scared too. She asked Peter to marry her, but he said it wasn't possible. They argued outside the house about what to do, and Ruth dropped her gold chain bracelet. When she went back to look for it, it was gone. A couple of days later, Mameh gave it back to her and quietly suggested that she go to New York in the summertime to visit her grandmother.

James's real father, Andrew McBride, died before James was born. When his mother remarried a furnace fireman for the New York City Housing Authority named Hunter Jordan, her new husband became like a real father to James. Ruth and Jordan met while Ruth was selling church dinners in the plaza in front of the building. After their marriage, no distinction was ever made between the McBride and the Jordan children. When James was six or seven, he remembers moving to a four-bedroom pink stucco house in St. Albans, Queens; Jordan had spent his life savings to buy it. He couldn't live with the madness of so many children, so he kept his own place in Brooklyn, and visited on the weekends. He was half Native-American, and half black. In 1969, the city of New York told Jordan to move out of his Brooklyn home because they were going to build a high-rise housing project at the site. They gave him $13,000 for the brownstone, in spite of all the time and love he put into the place. He was forced to leave, but when James recently visited the address, all he found was an empty lot.

Jordan moved into the house in Queens, and converted the basement into a semblance of his old place. At age 72, he complained of a headache and then suffered a stroke. He improved a little, and asked James to take him for a drive, during which he said to him: "y'all are special...And just so special to me..." He told James that since he was the eldest in the house now, he needed to watch his mother and the younger kids. Two days later, Jordan had a relapse and passed away.


A point of contrast between the household in which Ruth grew up and the household she eventually ran is the idea of poverty and wealth. Ruth explains that, in spite of the difficult economic times, the store did well, and she never starved. However, she saw others who were starving, but were sustained by spirituality and affection. Ruth states that she always felt hungry for love and affection; though they existed in a sort of silent alliance with her mother, their relationship was never the open, safe kind in which one could luxuriate and grow. Tateh made their home life deeply unhappy. When Ruth ruled over her own children, James states that, in spite of the chaos, his mother was always there at the crucial times. She made sure that they took advantage of everything the city had to offer, and, through all the hardship, the house was lavished in love. Even though the family was always in financial trouble, James never felt "poor".

The emphasis on the recurring theme of education is directly connected to the idea of self-determination. When Ruth stated that education was the way to make something of oneself, she recognized its power to set one along the road to opportunity. In her fixation on education, Ruth exhibited the immigrant mentality of those who strongly believed they could remake themselves with the opportunities America afforded. Ruth provided her family with all of the things America - and New York City - had to offer. In doing so, she pushed her children to engage in the world and learn how to move upwards in society.

The idea of self-determination, in Ruth's view, transcended the idea of race. To her children, she insisted that it didn't matter what color they were if they were nobody, and urged them to concentrate on school grades and church. Ruth created a tiny microcosm of the world to keep her family safe, but as the children grew older, the household began to destabilize as the question of race began spreading through their lives. When James saw his mother retaliate against a storeowner who sold James spoiled milk and then insulted her, he began feeling increasingly ashamed of being seen with her in public. This echoes the shame Ruth experienced with Mameh, who could not speak English and was physically crippled. In the end, however, James states that his views changed: "[As a child] I would have preferred that Mommy were black. Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds." He recognizes that his hybrid identity and the uniqueness of his background invest him with the ability to express ideas that transcend race.

Ruth's abortion, which she describes in this section, was fraught with a sense of inevitability mixed with fear; there were no feelings of empowerment or self-determination. The action, however, was a brave one: she helped save Peter's life, and undoubtedly saved him from a serious, possibly violent retaliation from her father. The irony, however, arises in light of Ruth's fertility; despite her initial reluctance to give life to a child who was half black and half white, Ruth later gave birth to twelve children, all with similar racial identities. The trouble with her relationship with Peter, however, had less to do with race than with the actual relationship. Ruth loved him passionately: "[M]y whole life changed after I fell in love. It was like the sun started shining on me for the first time, and for the first time in my life I began to smile. I was loved, I was loved, and I didn't care what anyone thought." However, Peter did not return the sentiment. He didn't want to run away from his life in order to marry Ruth, and was seeing at least one other girl at the same time - a black girl who he did eventually marry.

The memoir then shifts to a more detailed description of Hunter Jordan, Ruth's second husband, and the man who James felt was his real father, even though they were not blood relations. When James tells the reader about how the brownstone his father loved was taken down by the city with only the most meager compensation, James expresses his anger about the injustices done to blacks, particularly with respect to property issues. Despite Jordan's good heart and the fact that he was an employee of the city, he was forced to give up something he cherished. The fact that the lot was never even built upon is a symbol of the pervasive waste found in the United States.

When Jordan passed away, James experienced death for the first time. His real father died before he was born, so he never had to deal with that source of grief. The grief he felt upon Jordan's death, however, caused him to actively rebel against his upbringing (an echo of his mother's rebellious nature). As death in The Color of Water often suggests a later rebirth, the natural momentum of the story causes the reader to wonder how James will rebel, how his mother will respond, and, in the end, how James, along with the rest of his siblings, will achieve the American Dream.