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Phillip Souzek

Susan Vervaet

English 111 Section (06)

September 27, 2000

The Color of Water: Book Review

In this memoir, the author chooses to have two narrators, himself as one, and his mother as the other. This style makes for quite an interesting story, skipping back and forth in time, from the child’s life, to that of his mother. Although many time changes occur, they are quite easy to keep up with, as the two narrator’s of the book, James, and his mother, alternate chapters. For this reason, it is also very easy to compare the childhood of each of the main characters. Although the chapters aren’t always during the same time periods of the respective characters, they are close enough that similarities can be seen, and parallels can be drawn. This is one of my favorite parts of the novel, seeing the main character, James, grow up with his mother Rachel.

In summary, the author tells the story of both his mother, and himself growing up. His mother was raised Jewish, but became Christian before James was born, which was thus the religion he was raised in. Both had very strict discipline, in their respective religions. The memoir focuses more on Rachel, who grows up in a Jewish family living in a country and area where Jews are not well received. After surviving this, and sexual abuse as a child, Rachel goes on to run away from home, and marries a caring black man from New York. Here she settles down, has a family, and raises twelve kids, while being constantly harassed because of her marriage, as well as her children, who are all of a different color than her. After eight children, her husband dies, and she remarries to a man of similar morals, race, and discipline. James, the final child of the original father, grows up knowing only the step-father as “daddy”, and suffers the hardships of growing up in a multi-racial family, which always seems to be in the minority.

This memoir was written mainly for the author’s interest, and not the reader’s, which definitely makes it unique. Although it is just like any other book, in that its successfulness will be judged by sales as well as how it affects readers, the author only went through all of the research done in writing this book in order to quench his own thirst for finding out where his roots lay. This is quite evident in the reading, which seems to mention the history, and story behind nearly everyone, as well as every place. This makes for many interesting stories, but often-times ones that are too preoccupied with showing the reader what it meant to the author, and not as concerned with the enjoyment of the reader.

This, of course, spawns another problem. With an author who is only concerned with showing the reader how it affected himself, you are deprived of what you really want to know about a given character. James has eleven brothers and sisters, all of which have something to add to the story, and yet the exposition given to each of them is far from satisfactory. Much more detail could have been given on what they thought of their mother, how each of them found out about her, who teaches and lives the motto “Don’t tell anyone your business.” For this reason, the children have the challenge of digging up the truth about their mother, and James takes it to the next level, by writing a book.

What the book does offer a younger reader, like myself, is insight as to what it was like to grow in the 1950’s and 60’s in a biracial family. The hardships that these children, James especially, and his mother endure, are depicted quite well. Each shows how strong of a person Rachel was, and also helped to strengthen the children, which would benefit them later in life.

However, the most important thing that came from these anecdotes of racism in the memoir was what it taught me, as a reader. The way that Mommy reacted during each of these instances showed that you truly could ignore people that have nothing good to say, and get away with it. She can teach nearly any reader that it doesn’t pay off to go crazy on someone, and that ignoring him or her and walking away does seem to be the best solution, and is a sign of strength that outweighs getting in a fight, whether you win or lose.

This memoir also teaches a good lesson on religion. Although Rachel was raised in a Jewish family that was tainted by sexual abuse, and a lack of love, she realizes by the end of the book that part of her is Jewish, and that not everything Jewish is bad. There are plenty of families, organizations, and get-togethers that exist in all religions which a lot of good can and does come from. Nearly anybody who believes in a god will be less prone to commit violent acts, and more likely to help out a stranger. Rachel does become a Christian, and Jesus really did help her in her time of need, if you ask her; but no matter what the religion, faith can help out many people in their time of need. This book shows what Christianity did for Mommy, and what good came of all the Jewish friends she had from before leaving the religion.

This book’s structure wasn’t written perfectly, and it certainly wasn’t concerned with winning any awards, but it had a purpose. It gave the author a better sense of who he is, and can give many readers much more than that; valuable lessons in life. To grade this book on things such as structure, vocabulary, and even sales would be to miss the entire point of the memoir. Read it as a memoir with great insight and a damn good owners manual on how to get along in this world, and I can guarantee you won’t be let down; in fact, you will probably be quite impressed. But if what you’re looking for is a book that needs to live up to the standards of a great piece of literature, you’re looking in the wrong place.

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