The Color* of Water – by James McBride – Book Review

This is the story of “Ruth”, the name she called herself, being born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska, an Orthodox Jew. She always thought she was different and lived this out all her life. Her family lived in a mixed-race community and owned a general store where Ruth worked. She was closely watched by her parents and to get some “away” time, she and her sister would sneak out at night and meet boys. When she discovered she was pregnant, her mother sent her to New York where her aunt arranged the abortion. They managed all this without the knowledge of her father who was a strict disciplinarian and a violent man.

For reasons she never understood, Ruth felt drawn to coloured folk. She felt that coloured people accepted her as she was, whereas whites always humiliated her because she strictly followed Jewish traditions and so was different.

Ruth married a black man, Andrew McBride, a Baptist minister, and they had eight children. Their church was the centre of their lives. They worshipped every Sunday in the church which Andrew founded, and hosted many weekly activities in their home. The children were taught to honour God and “keep their own business to themselves”.

When Andrew McBride died from cancer just before child number eight was born, Ruth was left utterly bereft with no means of support. They were provided for in many ways by friends and parishioners (also poor) but experienced extreme poverty. Ruth had been totally rejected by her Jewish family upon her marriage and though some were very wealthy, they regarded her as “dead” and did nothing to help her. To support her family, Ruth worked mainly at night doing all sorts of menial jobs, travelling across town by bus to wherever she could find work, often sleeping on the bus. 

Another black man offered to marry her. Mr Hunter Jordan took on Ruth and her “baseball team” and they had another four children. Mr Jordan bought a new house for his family and they left their abject poverty to enjoy a few comforts. Ruth ruled with a gloved iron hand and no child ever questioned Mama. She insisted her family “educate their minds” and all attended college and graduated. Many became doctors and masters in their profession. 

When all her family were educated, at age sixty-five, Ruth began her own education and completed a degree in social work. This led her to work as a volunteer in a social service agency that helped pregnant unwed mothers. Running reading lessons for illiterate seniors was another avenue she chose to pursue.

Ruth spent her life as a white woman in a black community. When asked why she was white, she answered “God made me that way”. The last of the McBride children, and author of the book, asked Ruth “What color* is God?” and she replied “The Color* of Water”. The book is educational as well as complex and moving.

*the spelling used in the book and for the title

You can buy The Color of Water from good books stores or online at Booktopia, Amazon Australia, or Dymocks

About the Author

Daphne Miegel

Daphne is a past President of LWA. She lives in Lameroo with her husband where they are members at St John's Lutheran.

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