The Color of Water

Thoughts tcowbyjm by James McBride, Sceptre 1997, 291 pages, tradeback

Bookmooched and sent via seamail from a generous Australian – I kept the stamps portion of the package as a bookmark: photo-80

I really enjoyed and was fascinated by this look into an unusual family and growing up experience. James McBride was born in 1957, the 8th of 12 kids with a black father and a white mother. It took him a long time to discover his mother’s background and heritage as a Polish Jewish woman — she wasn’t too keen on telling him about her childhood.

His look at the contrasts between his mother’s life and his life in the mid twentieth century: New York City and small town Virginia, black and white, Christian and Jewish, poor and (by extension, not quite her immediate experience) rich – are very startling and mind-boggling. James questioned it all and explored all the depths and backs and forths to emerge/survive from a scary path of possible crime to educated musician and writer; telling his story between the unfolding of how his mother rejected her Jewish life to find love and fulfillment on the ‘black side’.

I found the mother to be thoroughly amazing in her approach to life, her fearlessness and fierce spirit. I am thrilled to know Mr. McBride had such a strong support system to get himself back to school as a teen.


Within the family, questions about racial identity were answered with loving circumspection. When James asked his mother about why she was different from her children, she would say only, “I’m light-skinned.”

When he asked if he was black or white, she said, “You’re a human being.”

And what about God?

“God is the color of water.”

 – excerpt from NYTimes review

(I found an interesting connection to water in my current read (Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, p.23): “Water is the purest, clearest of liquids; in virtue of this its natural character it is the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit…” – Ludwig Feuerbach)

And then to realize that the author of The Good Lord Bird, which won the National Book Award for Fiction 2013 and took top honors at last spring’s Tournament of Books, is the SAME JAMES McBRIDE who wrote this. I am so looking forward to reading TGLB – a historical fiction that explores slavery against the backdrop of John Brown’s adventures at Harper’s Ferry.

Maybe I should rec The Good Lord Bird for book club. Not sure how many of them will like the satire, but I know many will be intrigued by the author.

One more note: The Color of Water is on my school’s Summer Reading List.

Who is up for a Read-Along of The Good Lord Bird?  



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16 thoughts on “The Color of Water

  1. I’m kind of interested in reading The Good Lord Bird and talking about it with some folks. In my usual, “doesn’t-play-well-with-others” way, you know.

    1. Oh good! I would send you this but I just loaned it to the tenth grader down the street. If she decides not to read it, I’ll be in touch.

  2. aartichapati

    I read this one after I read The Good Lord Bird. I enjoyed it a lot but I don’t think I ever reviewed it. I agree McBride’s background is fascinating, and I just loved his mother’s staunch approach to life and making so clear to her children that race should not hold them back.

    1. She was very interesting and as McBride demonstrates, she was often contradictory – but she was true to herself and fierce for her kids.

    1. She didn’t seem to have any awareness of goals other than to provide for and love and push kids to get their educations. She was more remarkable than amazing, if that makes sense.

    1. Oh? how so? I hope I wasn’t confusing; I only meant to contrast the poverty times of McBride’s mother growing up in the 30s and 40s and having all those kids in the 50s, so they all grew up within the civil rights movement 60s and then those crazy 70s. Ya know, when I think of “The Sixties”, I think of all the political stuff and my memories of the 70s are all culture and music (Sat Night Fever, BeeGees, disco, etc.).

  3. Depends when you hold the read along. I am reading Twelve Years a Slave for book club in July/August so if it’s too close to that one, then I may have to skip it. I can only handle so many books of the same topic at once. Unless there is a clown in the mix. Then, I will make an exception.

    1. Yea, I don’t know… Am considering downloading the audio TODAY. I don’t have an audio ready for my long drive tomorrow. What to do, what to do. (can’t decide!)

    1. It was totally fascinating look at an unusual slice of ‘life and times’.
      You and I have such similar appreciation of books, yes? 🙂 We really need to start looking for another challenging readalong book.

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