If Cheaper By the Dozen
, by Frank Gilbraith Jr., and The Color Purple
, by Alice Walker, ever somehow met and had an "I like you as a friend, not a lover" child, The Color of Water
would be it - race and a ridiculous amount of kids. The concept is compelling, and I would recommend this book to anyone who was disappointed that Run
, Ann Patchett's most recent book, didn't deal more directly with race issues in a mixed-race family. Nominally, this book is a tribute to James McBride's mother, who was an unarguably interesting person. McBride's personal issues with his mother clouded her story, however, and his inability to emotionally separate from her enough to treat her as a character left me feeling that he bit off more than he could chew when he decided to write this "tribute". McBride reflects that his mother was not comfortable having her story told and preferred not to discuss her past with him, which leads me to ask whether "tribute" is an appropriate word to put in the title of this book. It would have been a stronger narrative if McBride had openly written The Color of Water
as his own story, not his mother's.
Toward the end of the book, McBride admits that he experienced more emotion hearing his mother's story than his mother did telling it. This comes through awkwardly within the narrative. For example, he names his mother "Mommy", and that continues as the name of her character throughout the entire story. Though he reminds his reader four or five times that Mommy's name changed from Ruchel Dwarja Zylska in Poland to Rachel Deborah Shilsky in America to Ruth McBride Jordan (after her marriages and renouncing of the Jewish faith), and though his sisters seem call her Ruth or Ruthie, he continues to refer to her as Mommy. His character rebels, grows up, becomes a successful journalist, but still his mother's character is "Mommy".
At first, when I read The Color Purple
, Mr._______'s name was awkward to me. I didn't know how I was supposed to say it. I honestly wondered a little bit if Walker couldn't come up with a name for him, so she just left it out. By the end of the novel, the genius of both robbing Mr.________ of the right to a name, and calling him something that effectively gives him the potential to be Everyman deepens the novel. Not so with Mommy. McBride writes a specific woman, not a stock character. Mommy "waddles", likes her privacy, and doesn't like to do housework. While with Mr._______ I eventually hope that my last name never fills that blank, with Mommy I know it doesn't. She's not my Mommy, so do I have to call her that? Does McBride still think of her as he did when he was a small child?
McBride divides this book a' la The Grapes of Wrath
, with alternating chapters that are vignettes from Mommy's point of view and chapters that are a continuing story from his point of view. His mother's vignettes are at times very lovely, but at some point his chapters started repeating hers as though the stories had not been told already. This was not in an artistic, Rashamon
way, but rather seemed like bad editing or, worse, some kind of psychological disassociation with his mother's story that needed to be dealt with before writing the book. At first, Mommy's story is supplemental to his memories of her from when he is a child. Later, however, one chapter tells a story from her point of view, and then the next, from James McBride's point of view, repeats the same story by recalling the circumstances of her telling that story to him. That's not necessary.
Also, who is his "sister Jack"? I officially do not understand what her relation to the family is if she is not literally his sister. I will be sad if I find out he explained that and I missed it, when I didn't miss the many times he described his mother's name change and who her childhood best friend was.
Unfortunately, while The Color of Water
has the potential to be a truly great American story, it does not live up to that potential. McBride's ambivalence as to whether to tell his story or his mother's story sabotaged it and left me feeling uncomfortable - like neither he nor his mother were well represented. I read this for a book club, and many of the people in the club were not distracted by the way McBride told the story. To them, the fascinating life his mother led and his psychological journey in learning about her were not conflicting storylines that distracted from each other, both stories were part of united by the larger journey of him learning to forgive his mother. I think they could stay with the story because they were rooting for the mother/son relationship. I, on the other hand, am more interested in being entertained than other people's psyco-health. It's shallow, but true. Basically, McBride failed me as an entertainer.