Sparrow's Reviews > The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother

The Color of Water by James McBride
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Jul 10, 09

bookshelves: hate-the-writing-respect-the-story, reviewed
Recommended to Sparrow by: Denise Jubber
Recommended for: Those disappointed with Run, by Ann Patchett
Read in August, 2008

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.
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Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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Eric The sister Jack is explained in the first few chapters, I believe she is his step sister or half sister.


Sparrow Hmmm. The daughter of the step-father, then? I guess that makes sense. Is there a story that I don't remember about him having a family before meeting Ruth?


message 3: by Erik (new)

Erik Simon I love this review, especially the opening line. McBride, incidentally, lived in the neighborhood in which I now live, and it was in this neighborhood that he wrote this book. He left after its success. Everyone said he had a chip on his shoulder and wasn't particularly nice.


Sparrow That's hilarious, Erik! That's kind of how he seemed to me. Writing the book gives him a lot of moral-judgment power over a lot of people because his final word is in print. I feel like morally judging him about that.

His mom had a fascinating life, but it kind of hurt my feelings for her that she told him she didn't want him to write the story, but he wrote it anyway and then called it a tribute to her. Douchebag.


Tameca Meridith, that is an interesting point. I know it's something I struggle with a lot with my own writing. My family wishes many of our stories to remain in the past and evaporating with added time. I didn't want to honor that primarily, but I think there are plenty more things to tell without breaking that code with my family.

I like your review. I am glad that you are critical. I like a lot about this book, but at the same time, there is something that really doesn't sit right with me. I wasn't able to quite put my finger on what it was that bugged me, but I think I know now, and your review has been a help. Part of my issue may be that McBride took control of his mother's voice, instead of letting his mother speak, and then he inserted his own voice along side his mother's. I would have liked to have seen his siblings' voices, as well, to be fair. I think the writing is good, and the stories are interesting enough. I am not adverse to parallel narratives, but I wonder if McBride gets a little self-indulgent, at times. That of course, can be irksome.

I am still enamored of his mother. There are scenes I can still see, despite it having been some time since I've completed the book.

Again, thanks. I think a lot of us shirk criticism. That's too bad, really.

Peace!


Sparrow Thanks, Tameca. For better or worse, I'm a pretty critical person, but I think I can also take it when people criticize the things I like, as long as they do it well and in a funnyish manner. So maybe that makes it okay? :) I agree that his mother seems amazing. I think that this book was ruined for me because I read The Glass Castle immediately before it. I absolutely adored that book, and they had kind of similar premises (minus race issues), but Jeanette Walls seemed so prepared to tell the story.

I agree about how family makes it hard to write. I think there is a part in Virginia Woolf's Writer's Diary where she says that she wasn't able to write until after her father died. At the same time, I think that says something about how authentic our relationships are with the people around us. For me, the reason family makes it hard to write is that I spent so many years lying about my relationship with my parents, and if I ever write about them, they'll know. That's a pretty crap excuse for not writing, but there it is. I think a lot of my problem with McBride's narrator voice is that he didn't come to the other side of his conflicted relationship with his mom and treat her as a character. I can see how that would be hard, but . . . [insert cliche here:].


message 7: by Tameca (last edited Sep 29, 2009 07:45AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tameca My mother has made the same promise as Virgina Woolf! I have resorted as a writer to eking out the "good things," or the things that people want to remember, especially my mother. This method brings my mother and I closer than we have ever been.

Don't be apologetic about your criticisms. If you know your stuff, and you aren't criticizing for the sake of it, you are fine. You are working with your opinion based on your experience in reading. This is what we do (or are supposed to do) in literature classes (not that this is what this is). There's a certain art to it, maybe, and a balance, which you allude to. You don't sound to me like someone who solely criticizes for the sake of it.

Plus, you started a conversation about the book, and I am glad for it.


message 8: by Sparrow (last edited Sep 29, 2009 12:36PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Sparrow I think with Virginia Woolf it wasn't a promise, it was something that she observed about herself. Her father had died years before she was writing, and she says something about how because his approval was so important to her, it paralyzed her from actually becoming who she was. I'm completely paraphrasing there and probably throwing in my own interpretation. I looked for the passage, but I own a different version of the book than the one I originally read, so I couldn't find it. Oh, well. Good excuse to re-read!

No, I like criticism. I think it holds us to higher standards and keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. Sometimes it can be just as paralyzing as family, though. :)

That's interesting about your and your mother's decisions. I tend to like silly, fun writing just as much as emotionally meaningful writing, so I don't necessarily think a writer's decision to expose or protect family, or even talk about family, determines whether that writer's work will be interesting or not. I recently decided that relationships I was trying to protect through lies and omissions weren't real relationships anyway, and the decision actually made writing more fun. I'm not super popular with my parents anymore, though. But, when it comes down to it, I wasn't super popular with them before, either. I think those things are such a personal choice, though, and, like we see with my review, talking at all about family in writing leaves the writer open to the reader's opinions and criticisms, when it's kind of none of our business otherwise.


Stephanieireland "mommy" bothered me as well.....


Butterfly Jack was James's father's daughter from a previous marriage, not the step-father's daughter. I wanted to know more about the previous marriage, too.


Sparrow Oh, well, that's good to know. I will note it in the review if I remember after I get to work.


message 12: by Anne (new) - rated it 4 stars

Anne Marie I teach kindergarten ... I have heard everything under the sun as a reference to their mother . Names stick. As a mother of teenage children I relish the moment when the refer to me as momma. I know grown men and women who use the term mommy. Why should that bother anyone?


Sparrow I don't have a problem with the name. I have a problem with the continuity within the story. What it conveyed seemed contradictory with who the characters were.


Stevie I really enjoyed this review, because I think you nailed down a lot of the problems I had with it. The one point I would add is that I feel like I read a SparkNotes summary of a book rather than the book itself. Some of the stories he has to tell are fascinating, but he doesn't tell them in a way that's interesting; he just conveys the facts. I get a pretty clear picture of what his mother is like (from his perspective), but his own life and personality are murky. I haven't read Cheaper by the Dozen in 30 years, but I remember that being far more enjoyable as a read.


Sparrow Agreed. It was not a problem with the subject matter, just a writing problem.


Kifra Ledford I liked your review Sparrow, very well said. Someone also noted that there should be more dialogue with siblings. I agree, I really think more dialogue all over would have made the story come alive. It wasn't a bad book I just expected more. At the early chapters of the book I was a bit bored, which I didn't anticipate. However, I pressed through to the end.


Kifra Ledford I liked your review Sparrow, very well said. Someone also noted that there should be more dialogue with siblings. I agree, I really think more dialogue all over would have made the story come alive. It wasn't a bad book I just expected more. At the early chapters of the book I was a bit bored, which I didn't anticipate. However, I pressed through to the end.


Kifra Ledford I liked your review Sparrow, very well said. Someone also noted that there should be more dialogue with siblings. I agree, I really think more dialogue all over would have made the story come alive. It wasn't a bad book I just expected more. At the early chapters of the book I was a bit bored, which I didn't anticipate. However, I pressed through to the end.


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