The Color of Water Summary, Characters and Themes

“The Color of Water” is a memoir by James McBride, exploring some complex themes of race, identity, and family through the lens of his own life and that of his mother, Ruth McBride. 

Ruth’s story is a testament to the art of human resilience; a Polish Jewish immigrant who becomes the matriarch of a large, biracial family, her journey marked by adversity, transformation, and unwavering love.


Born into a family of Polish Jewish immigrants, Ruth’s early years are shaped by hardship and abuse at the hands of her father, Tateh, a failed rabbi turned store owner in Suffolk, Virginia. 

Tateh’s store, situated in a predominantly black neighborhood, becomes a source of contention and shame for Ruth, who is appalled by her father’s racist attitudes and predatory business practices. 

Escaping a life of abuse, betrayal, and the constraints of her rigid family and community, Ruth leaves everything behind, including a hidden pregnancy, for a new beginning in Harlem.

In New York, Ruth’s life takes a turn towards hope and renewal. 

She meets and marries Dennis McBride, a black man, with whom she finds happiness and starts a family. Together, they defy societal prejudices and lay the foundations for a life built on faith, education, and equality. 

Their union, however, is not without its trials; Dennis’s untimely death leaves Ruth with eight children to raise alone, a challenge she meets with remarkable strength and resourcefulness. Ruth later finds love again with Hunter Jordan, adding four more children to their blended family.

James McBride’s narrative weaves seamlessly between his mother’s past and his own journey of self-discovery. 

Growing up in a home where race and identity were secondary to moral values and education, James struggles with his own place in the world. His mother’s steadfast beliefs and the rich, albeit complex, heritage she passes down serve as his guiding light. 

From a troubled youth to his eventual success as a musician and writer, James’s path reflects the lessons of resilience and faith instilled by his mother.

The Color of Water Summary


Ruth McBride

Ruth McBride is the matriarch of the McBride family and the central figure of the memoir. Born in Poland and raised in the United States within a strict Polish Jewish family, she endures a childhood marked by abuse and racism. 

Ruth’s resilience is evident in her decision to leave her past behind, including her family and Jewish heritage, to embrace a new life and identity in New York. Marrying a black man and converting to Christianity, Ruth breaks societal norms and faces prejudice with courage. 

Her character is defined by her strong moral convictions, unwavering faith, and dedication to ensuring her children receive a quality education and understand the value of hard work.

James McBride

James McBride is the author and a principal character, offering insights into his personal journey of self-discovery and identity. 

Born to Ruth and her first husband, Dennis, James grows up in a large, biracial family, struggling to understand his racial and cultural identity. 

His journey is fraught with challenges, including the death of his stepfather, Hunter Jordan, which leads him into a period of rebellion. However, inspired by his mother’s strength and guided by her values, James eventually finds his path through music and writing, achieving academic and professional success. 

His character embodies the complexities of biracial identity in America and the quest for personal understanding within a diverse family dynamic.

Dennis McBride

Dennis McBride, Ruth’s first husband, is a figure of stability and love in the memoir. His marriage to Ruth signifies a bold stand against the racial prejudices of the time. 

Dennis is depicted as a kind, loving husband and father who supports Ruth’s conversion to Christianity and shares her dedication to family and faith. 

His untimely death from lung cancer has a profound impact on Ruth and their children, marking a pivotal moment of loss and transition for the family.

Hunter Jordan

Hunter Jordan is Ruth’s second husband and a stabilizing force for the McBride family following Dennis’s death. 

A good-hearted and hardworking man, Hunter’s marriage to Ruth represents a new chapter of hope and resilience for the family. He loves Ruth’s children as his own and contributes to the family’s well-being until his death. 

Hunter’s character underscores themes of love, resilience, and the complexities of blended family dynamics.


Tateh, Ruth’s father, is portrayed as the antagonist of her early life. An abusive, racist, and unfaithful husband, his treatment of Ruth and her family contrasts sharply with the values Ruth later instills in her own children. 

Tateh’s character serves as a backdrop to Ruth’s transformative journey, highlighting the courage it takes to escape a toxic environment and forge a new path.


Mameh, Ruth’s mother, is a silent sufferer in the memoir. Disabled and abused, her plight deeply affects Ruth and shapes her understanding of strength and resilience. 

Mameh’s character, though not extensively developed, represents the sacrifices mothers make and the impact of maternal influence on children’s lives.


1. The Complexity of Racial Identity

James McBride’s memoir masterfully explores the intricacies of racial identity through the prism of his own life and that of his mother, Ruth. 

As a biracial individual growing up in a predominantly black community, James grapples with questions of belonging, identity, and self-acceptance. 

His mother’s refusal to conform to racial stereotypes – a white Jewish woman who marries black men and raises her children in a predominantly African American culture – further complicates these questions. 

The memoir underscores the fluidity of racial identity, challenging the binary notions of race and encouraging a deeper understanding of identity as multifaceted and evolving.

2. The Power of Family and Maternal Love

At its core, the book is a tribute to Ruth McBride’s strength, resilience, and unwavering love for her family. Despite facing societal prejudice, financial hardships, and personal tragedies, Ruth’s love remains her children’s constant, guiding them towards success and fulfillment. 

Her sacrifices and determination to provide her children with a better life, emphasizing education and moral values above all, highlight the profound impact of maternal love and the strength of family bonds. 

The narrative celebrates the idea that family is not just defined by blood or race but by the love and commitment that bind individuals together.

3. The Intersection of Faith and Identity

Faith plays a pivotal role in shaping the lives of Ruth and her children, serving as a source of strength, guidance, and transformation. Ruth’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity marks a significant turning point in her life, symbolizing not just a change in religious belief but also a rebirth of self. 

For James and his siblings, faith becomes a foundation for understanding their own identities and values. The memoir illustrates how faith can transcend racial and cultural boundaries, offering solace, community, and a sense of purpose. 

Through the lens of faith, this memoir explores the complex interplay between religion, identity, and the search for meaning in life.

Final Thoughts

Ruth McBride’s legacy, as depicted in “The Color of Water,” is a powerful reminder of the enduring strength of family and the transcendent nature of love. 

Her life, marked by sacrifices and a relentless pursuit of a better future for her children, stands as a beacon of hope and a bridge between worlds. Through her story and James’s tribute, we are invited to reflect on our own identities and the myriad ways in which love and understanding can transcend the deepest divides.