I read The Color of Water by James McBride for my Honors Composition I course (eleven years ago now! Yikes), and I remembered liking it. My friend F had this month’s pick for our book club, and she chose this one, so that we could talk about race in America. If you’ve followed my reviews for any length of time, you know I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, because I often have issues with the writing or style. I felt that The Color of Water suffered from those issues, but was overall a unique take on how we view race and ethnicity in the United States.
James McBride is a biracial man who identifies as black. His father, a black man, died before he was born, and his stepfather, who died when he was twelve, was also black. Yet his mother was white, and he never knew that she was Jewish until he was an adult. Her life and origins were a complete mystery, and so he teased it out of her slowly. Born Ruchel (or Rachel) Shilsky, Ruth McBride Jordan suffered an oppressive childhood until she moved to New York, fell in love, and started her life over. James McBride grew up a black man without realizing his Jewish heritage. The two stories converge into a conversation about how we discover our roots, and how what we learn from the past can influence and enlarge our futures.
The story is excellent, but the writing was not my favorite. Having just read The Purple Hibiscus, this felt a bit plodding at times. Then again, biography needs to be incredibly snappy or well-written to keep my interest for long periods of time. My three-star evaluation comes down to a style preference for me, not a lack of content (which, again, is rich and worth pondering).