James McBride, Author of The Color of Water

“Here is her life as she told it to me, and betwixt and between the pages of her life you will find mine as well” (pg. xvii). Unveiling the incredible journey of Ruchel Zylska to Rachel Shilsky and finally settling into Ruth McBride-Jordan, readers are allowed a glimpse into the lives of twelve black children and their white, Jewish mother. With locations in the U.S.A. such as New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and North Carolina we see Ruthie’s strength and resilience in not only making a life for herself, but also each and every one of her children.

James McBride, author of The Color of Water and son of Ruth, retells the story of his mother and the past she’d sooner forget. For most of his life, and the lives of his siblings, Ruth McBride-Jordan’s life before marriage was always shrouded in mystery. With ducks and dives, diversions and distractions, Ruth always managed to wriggle her way out of giving James a straightforward answer – a trend she kept for the first twenty four years of James’ life. With painstaking patience and tenderness, James coaxes years of pain and suffering out from the strongest woman he has ever known.
“It took many years to find out who she was, partly because I never knew who I was.” Asking every which way he could, he tried to understand where he fit in this world and whether or not that world was safe for his mom. He saw how his family was different – how his mother was not only fair skinned, but white and struggled to understand why the world cared so much. James resented parts of himself at a young age with his head and heart torn between what he knew, saw, and felt. As time would have it, James would continue in his search for answers for years until he persisted in his endeavors to understand his mother.

Little by little, James pried open the layers of secrets his mother kept hidden for years. First as an immigrant family fleeing from the holocaust, Ruth knew only of the Jewish way. Dining in the Jewish custom of kosher, resting only on Saturday, and with a deep distrust of other people instilled into her, Ruth grew up with a limited view of the world. Growing up in Suffolk, she came to understand certain truths about the world she lived in: (1) whites were treated better than blacks, (2) Jews were not whites, and (3) everyone hated Jews almost as much as they hated blacks.
With conflicting emotions concerning her mother, Ruth’s childhood proved perilous with her father’s abuse and absolute dominance. Ruth’s father became a respected rabbi and later purchased property where he converted an old shack into his own business. While others mocked him in the beginning, he ended up accumulating a decent amount of money. Aside from his business adventures, Ruth’s father ruled the household with an iron fist and instilled fear into the hearts of his family. Molesting her at a young age and demanding much out of Ruth and her siblings, Fishel Shilsky left no room for love in his household. His despise for his wife Hudis due to her condition set an example for the kids and left them without a voice growing up.

Even without the type of love she came to know as a transformed Christian, her mother and siblings meant the world to her. As her mother’s translator, Ruth also became her mother’s eyes, ears, and voice in the world. She understood how hard her older brother was pushed by their father and seemed to not resent him when he left for a better life. While it does not show how close Ruth is to her younger sister Dee-dee in their youth, we see the impact of the separation on Ruth’s heart. After the family pronounced her dead and sat shiva for her, Ruth’s ties to her Jewish family was cut. Even in her mother’s death, no one would allow her to return to their world. Ruth was left to suffer on her own.
All her life, Ruth has only known hard work. Working long, hard hours at her father’s shop, Ruth demanded much out of her body to keep up with her studies. She was smart, this woman, and knew how to survive in this world. Seen especially as a mother, Ruth was an incredible figure somehow managing to give twelve sets of kids a life beyond the projects. Aside from the financial aspect, Ruth also worked hard at creating her own life. Courageous and beautiful in her newfound freedom, Ruth shed the constraints of her Jewish lifestyle and allowed for change to take place deep inside her. Not bad for a woman who wouldn’t allow herself to enter a gentile church in her youth.

After leaving her family, Ruth worked odd jobs until life would have it that she would meet her husbands. With them, she was able to understand love and built her life around what made her happy and her life fulfilling. She started a church with her first husband and was blessed to have eight kids with him before he passed away. With her second husband, the life she created was sustained and maintained with his own added uniqueness thrown into the mix of things. Luckily enough, all the kids accepted Mr. Jordan with the younger ones calling him “Daddy”. All in all, it felt as if these men were meant to come into Ruth’s life, show her a new way to live, and help her give these children a life full of love, education, and Christ.
“What’s money if your mind is empty” (pg. 9/33)? Throughout the book, Ruth believed education was the key to life, a lesson she will beat into her children in years to come. Struggling to get by, James and his siblings knew hunger like most wouldn’t, yet they also experienced a side of life that other kids may never know. These kids, while bullying was a given, had a stronger bond than most would and knew how to navigate around the world at ages that would shock most people. Even the youngest knew how to use the public transportation system to return home. With all this knowledge, the kids also learned how to see the world through a special lens. As a black person with a white mother, James knew in his adulthood that he’s been blessed being able to see two different sides of the world and welcome it with more compassion and understanding than his time may have allotted.
“As I sat down on the bus and looked for her through the window, it occurred to me that since 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. … If you stay here, you’ll fool around. Go away and learn to live on your own'” (pg. 189-190).

I absolutely adored this book. The flow and pace kept the reader’s attention and made it exciting to read. I fell in love with his truths and the lessons he and his mother learned throughout their lives. James allowed me a peek into the lifestyle he was raised in as well as how much of outstanding mother Ruthie really was. I ended up pondering on my own mother and how many parts of her life she has chosen to keep hidden from me and my brothers. In the past year, I’ve unearthed much of the skeletons in her closet, which unfortunately caused a rift in our relationship. Unfortunately, I learned sometimes a mother chooses to keep her secrets for reasons beyond her child’s comprehension.

“I felt I was getting back at the world for injustices I had suffered, but if you sat me down and asked me which injustices I was talking about, I wouldn’t have been able to name them if my life depended on it” (pg.141-142). This passage surprised me because from what James had been relaying to the readers, I would have thought he could yell at the top of his lungs how he was wronged. After some time contemplating this ordeal, I came to the conclusion that a lot of his anger was due to how scared he was for his mom. Even as a young boy he knew she was always in danger, a hunch proven when her purse was robbed right before his eyes. Have I acted out in this way? In the past year, I could name many times where I might be guilty of the same thing. While I know some of the anger and resentment I felt did come from injustices towards me, I admit now that much of those emotions also stemmed from my deep love for my mother and how I watched her suffer so.

As I mentioned in class, this book became my favorite book that I ever read. As I also mentioned in my previous book report, I’m currently going through a rocky phase with my mom so to have so many life lessons handed to me on a silver platter in the form of this book was just too much for me. I do see it as a sign. What stumps me today is whether or not my hesitation stems from pride or real concerns that was brought to my attention by people who could view my circumstance without the emotional weight I bear as her daughter.

“She picked that life for herself and she lived it, that’s all. What her reasons for it were I don’t know. But she did a good job. She raised twelve children. She led a good life.'” by Aubrey Rubenstein (pg. 227). This passage touched me because it made me face that my mom’s life is her life. She made her choices and while I might not agree with some of them, she did lead a good life. She had me and my brothers, gave us all an education, supported and encouraged us in her own way, and filled our lives with love. She provided for my family in more ways than I can tell someone and always gave it her all when anything stood in her way. While I knew she was an incredible woman, I did not realize I took her for granted until this passage came along. It was like a good slap in the face for me because it brought my righteous anger down enough to see past my own problems and see her for who she has always been; my mom. I may not have had the things I wanted growing up, but I had what I needed and she’s the reason why I’m here today. I was wrong for forgetting her life was hard too and that she made her decisions based on her time, values, and loved ones in mind. “Whatever I’m looking for, I’ve found it” (pg. 228)

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