After reading The Heaven and Earth Grocery Story, by James McBride, a story about a small town and its Black and Jewish neighbors, I was intrigued to learn more about the author’s life. I’d passed his memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, many times on the bookshelf in my parent’s house, and decided to take it home. Not only was it a great book, it was also the fodder for the aforementioned novel, which made reading it all the more interesting.
If you’ve read my past posts you’ll know that I’m a big fan of memoirs, and this one was no exception. While McBride’s story is a fascinating one, as with any great memoir, its power is in the author’s reflections and insights. But first, the story: McBride’s mother was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Europe, and came to America as a young girl. Her family moved around a lot, as her father kept getting fired from his rabbinic pulpits. He was a cruel person who abused his daughter and mistreated his wife. Her mother had a physical disability, yet an extremely kind heart. The family finally settled in Virginia where, after another failed rabbinate, her father set up a grocery store on the Black side of town. Eventually, the author’s mother, a strong willed and independent young woman, ran away to New York where she met a charismatic Black man whom she married, and together they had eight children. She was pregnant with the author when her husband tragically died. McBride’s mother remarried and had four more children – all of whom she raised, in poverty, to all go to university and better their lives.
The book is structured with chapters that alternate between the author describing his early years, and his mother’s story in her own words. In his sections, he describes his family’s poverty, love, and chaos, as well as his mother’s strength, anger, willfulness and incredible energy. In his mother’s chapters, she talks about her early life in Virginia, what prompted her to leave, her first husband, and, through him, her decision to practice Christianity. There’s a power in her voice, an urgency and tension that’s palpable.
The Color of Water tells an unusual story, the end of which describes the author’s exploration of his Jewish roots. Yet, what was powerful about the book was the strength of McBride’s mother’s voice (her chapters are written in the first person based on interviews she did with him), and then his reflections on that very same strength, which was sometimes overpowering and dysfunctional, even when it was loving. It is a story about what happens when one is, and is not, loved (his mother’s growing up); and how love can be not gentle, but forceful and demanding, and yet be a total and encompassing embrace (his own growing up).
The Color of Water is a great memoir, both beautiful and well-written, empathetic and full of energy.
Just Because I Liked It:
- I’m fickle when it comes to poetry, but this Chanukah-related poem, by Charles Reznikoff, shared by a friend who’s a poet, was awesome.
- Here is an excellent opinion piece, by David Brooks in The New York Times, about the limited (and scary) intellectual discourse in universities, and what might be done about it. Also, if you read the Globe, this Saturday’s opinion piece by Andrew Coyne was excellent and right on point.