The Color of Water

James McBride Character Analysis

The author and one of the narrators of The Color of Water. James is Ruth McBride-Jordan’s eighth child, son of Andrew Dennis McBride Sr., and stepson of Hunter Jordan Sr. James is a writer, as well as musician, and values his family, God, and music above all else. James was born and raised in New York City with his eleven siblings, spending his early years in Red Hook, Brooklyn and Queens. As a mixed-race child put alternately into all-black or all-white environments, James struggled with his racial identity. He understood that his father was black, but for a long time only knew that his mother was different from the black mothers of his friends, not understanding her racial and cultural background. Although James was a straight-A student for much of his childhood, after the death of his father he began to act out, doing drugs, drinking, and committing petty theft during a three-year rebellious period. Like his mother, James’s instinct in times of emotional turmoil is to ignore or run from the problem. Always a thoughtful, intelligent, and inquisitive child, James went to college at Oberlin and then received a journalism degree from Colombia University. In his twenties a Mother’s Day profile he wrote spun out into a full-length book project, which allowed him to interview his mother and discover her colorful past and his own mixed heritage.

James McBride Quotes in The Color of Water

The The Color of Water quotes below are all either spoken by James McBride or refer to James McBride. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race and Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Riverhead edition of The Color of Water published in 2006.
Chapter 2 Quotes

The image of her riding that bicycle typified her whole existence to me. Her oddness, her complete nonawareness of what the world thought of her, a nonchalance in the face of what I perceived to be imminent danger from blacks and whites who disliked her for being a white person in a black world. She saw none of it.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan
Related Symbols: Ruth’s Bicycle
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 4 Quotes

Mommy, after all, did not really look like me. In fact, she didn’t look like Richie, or David—or any of her children for that matter. We were all clearly black, of various shades of brown, some light brown, some medium brown, some very light-skinned, and all of us had curly hair. Mommy was by her own definition, “light-skinned,” a statement which I had initially accepted as fact but at some point later decided was not true. My best friend Billy Smith’s mother was as light as Mommy was and had red hair to boot, but there was no question in my mind that Billy’s mother was black and my mother was not. There was something inside me, an ache I had, like a constant itch that got bigger and bigger as I grew, that told me. It was in my blood, you might say, and however the notion got there, it bothered me greatly. Yet Mommy refused to acknowledge her whiteness. Why she did so was not clear, but even my teachers seemed to know she was white and I wasn’t. On open school nights, the question most often asked by my schoolteachers was: “Is James adopted?” which always prompted an outraged response from Mommy.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:
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Yet conflict was a part of our lives, written into our very faces, hands, and arms, and to see how contradiction lived and survived in its essence, we had to look no farther than our own mother. Mommy’s contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars at Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably slightly substandard. She disliked people with money yet was in constant need of it. She couldn’t stand racists of either color and had great distaste for bourgeois blacks who sought to emulate rich whites by putting on airs and “doing silly things like covering their couches with plastic and holding teacups with their pinkies out.” “What fools!” she’d hiss.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 6 Quotes

…One afternoon on the way home from church I asked her whether God was black or white.
A deep sigh. “Oh boy…God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.”
“Does he like black or white people better?”
“He loves all people. He’s a spirit.”
“What’s a spirit?”
“A spirit’s a spirit.”
“What color is God’s spirit?”
“It doesn’t have a color,” she said. “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.”

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 10 Quotes

To further escape from painful reality, I created an imaginary world for myself. I believed my true self was a boy who lived in the mirror. I’d lock myself in the bathroom and spend long hours playing with him. He looked just like me. I’d stare at him. Kiss him. Make faces at him and order him around. Unlike my siblings, he had no opinions. He would listen to me. “If I’m here and you’re me, how can you be there at the same time?” I’d ask. He’d shrug and smile. I’d shout at him, abuse him verbally. “Give me an answer!” I’d snarl. I would turn to leave, but when I wheeled around he was always there, waiting for me. I had an ache inside, a longing, but I didn’t know where it came from or why I had it. The boy in the mirror, he didn’t seem to have an ache. He was free. He was never hungry, he had his own bed probably, and his mother wasn’t white. I hated him. “Go away!” I’d shout. “Hurry up! Get on out!” but he’d never leave.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan
Related Symbols: The Boy in the Mirror
Page Number: 90
Explanation and Analysis:
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…I myself had no idea who I was. I loved my mother yet looked nothing like her. Neither did I look like the role models in my life—my stepfather, my godparents, other relatives—all of whom were black. And they looked nothing like the other heroes I saw, the guys in the movies, white men like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman who beat the bad guys and in the end got the pretty girl—who, incidentally, was always white.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan , Hunter Jordan Sr.
Page Number: 91
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The question of race was like the power of the moon in my house. It’s what made the river flow, the ocean swell, and the tide rise, but it was a silent power, intractable, indomitable, indisputable, and thus completely ignorable. Mommy kept us at a frantic living pace that left no time for the problem.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan
Page Number: 94
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As I walked home, holding Mommy’s hand while she fumed, I thought it would be easier if we were just one color, black or white. I didn’t want to be white. My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy were black. Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds. My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul. I don’t consider myself Jewish, but when I look at Holocaust photographs of Jewish women whose children have been wrenched from them by Nazi soldiers, the women look like my own mother and I think to myself, There but for the grace of God goes my own mother—and by extension, myself.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 16 Quotes

“I’ll never learn to drive,” she said.
The irony was that Mommy knew how to drive before she was eighteen. She drove her father’s 1936 Ford back in Suffolk, Virginia. Not only did she drive it, she drove it well enough to pull a trailer behind it full of wholesale supplies for her family’s grocery store. She drove the care and trailer on paved and dirt roads between Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, and North Carolina. She could back the trailer up with the goods in it, unload it at the store, back the car into the yard, unhook the trailer, and park the car in the garage, backing in. But she had left her past so far behind that she literally did to know how to drive. Rachel Deborah Shilsky could drive a car and pull a trailer behind it, but Ruth McBride Jordan had never touched a steering wheel before that day in 1973, and you can make book on it.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan (speaker)
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 18 Quotes

I kept in touch with her for many years. She helped me through college and helped me get into graduate school as well; she didn’t pay my way, but if I had an emergency, she would help. One morning a couple of years later when I was at Oberlin College, I went to my mailbox and found a letter from her telling me that her husband had died suddenly of cancer. Later that day I was standing on the street with a group of black students and one of them said, “Forget these whiteys. They’re all rich. They got no problems,” and I said, “Yeah, man, I hear you,” while inside my pocket was the folded letter holding the heartbroken words of an old white lady who had always gone out of her way to help me—and many others like me. It hurt me a little bit to stand there and lie. Sometimes it seemed like the truth was a bandy-legged soul who dashed from one side of the world to the other and I could never find him.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), David H. Dawson , Ann Fox Dawson
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 22 Quotes

Like most of the Jews in Suffolk they treated me very kindly, truly warm and welcoming, as if I were one of them, which in an odd way I suppose I was. I found it odd and amazing when white people treated me that way, as if there were no barriers between us. It said a lot about this religion—Judaism—that some of its followers, old southern crackers who talked with southern twangs and wore straw hats, seemed to believe that its covenants went beyond the color of one’s skin. The Sheffers, Helen Weintraub, the Jaffes, they talked to me in person and by letter in a manner and tone that, in essence, said “Don’t forget us. We have survived her. Your mother was part of this…”

Page Number: 224
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As I walked along the wharf and looked over the Nansemond River, which was colored an odd purple by the light of the moon, I said to myself, “What am I doing here? This place is so lonely. I gotta get out of here.” It suddenly occurred to me that my grandmother had walked around here and gazed upon this water many times, and the loneliness and agony that Hudis Shilsky felt as a Jew in this lonely southern town—far from her mother and sisters in New York, unable to speak English, a disabled Polish immigrant whose husband had no love for her and whose dreams of seeing her children grow up in America vanished as her life drained out of her at the age of forty-six—suddenly rose up in my blood and washed over me in waves. A penetrating loneliness covered me, lay on me so heavily I had to sit down and cover my face. I had no tears to shed. They were done long ago, but a new pain and a new awareness were born inside me. The uncertainty that lived inside me began to dissipate; the ache that the little boy who stared in the mirror felt was gone. My own humanity was awakened, rising up to greet me with a handshake as I watched the first glimmers of sunlight peek over the horizon.

Page Number: 228
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 24 Quotes

Sometimes without conscious realization, our thoughts, our faith, our interests are entered into the past…We talk about other times, other places, other persons, and lose our living hold on the present. Sometimes we think if we could just go back in time we would be happy. But anyone who attempts to reenter the past is sure to be disappointed. Anyone who has ever revisited the place of his birth after years of absence is shocked by the differences between the way the place actually is, and the way he has remembered it. He may walk along old familiar streets and roads, but he is a stranger in a strange land. He has thought of this place as home, but he finds he is no longer here even in spirit. He has gone onto a new and different life, and in thinking longingly of the past, he has been giving thought and interest to something that no longer really exists.

Page Number: 250
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 25 Quotes

Doctors found squamous cell cancer in a small mole they removed from Ma’s face, a condition caused by too much exposure to the sun. Ironically, it’s a condition that affects mostly white people. To the very end, Mommy is a flying compilation of competing interests and conflicts, a black woman in white skin, with black children and a white woman’s physical problem.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan
Page Number: 260
Explanation and Analysis:
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For her, her Jewish side is gone. She opened the door for me but closed it for herself long ago, and for her to crack it open and peek inside was like eating fire. She’d look in and stagger back, blinded, as the facts of her own history poured over her like lava. As she revealed the facts of her life I felt helpless, like I was watching her die and be reborn again (yet there was a cleansing element, too), because after years of hiding, she opened up and began to talk about the past, and as she did so, I was the one who wanted to run for cover…Imagine, if you will, five thousand years of Jewish history landing in your lap in the space of months. It sent me tumbling through my own abyss of sorts, trying to salvage what I could of my feelings and emotions, which would be scattered to the winds as she talked.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan
Page Number: 269
Explanation and Analysis:
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Mommy’s children are extraordinary people, most of them leaders in their own right. All of them have toted more mental baggage and dealt with more hardship than they care to remember, yet they carry themselves with a giant measure of dignity, humility, and humor. Like any family we have problems, but we have always been close. Through marriage, adoptions, love-ins, and shack-ups, the original dozen has expanded into dozens and dozens more—wives, husbands, children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, nephews—ranging from dark-skinned to light-skinned; from black kinky hair to blonde hair and blue eyes. In running from her past, Mommy has created her own nation, a rainbow coalition that descends on her house every Christmas and Thanksgiving and sleeps everywhere—on the floor, on rugs, in shifts; sleeping double, triple to a bed, “two up, three down,” just like old times.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan
Page Number: 276
Explanation and Analysis:
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Epilogue Quotes

She catches all of her important moments with a camera, waddling down Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue from the A train to Long Island College Hospital to take pictures of my daughter Azure’s first days of life; standing my toddler son, Jordan, up against a tree in her yard so she can snap a quick picture of him in his Easter outfit. Her photos are horrible, heads cut off, pictures of nothing, a table, a hand, a chair. Still, she shoots pictures of any event that’s important to her, knowing that each memory is too important to lose, having lost so many before.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan , David Lee Preston
Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:
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James McBride Character Timeline in The Color of Water

The timeline below shows where the character James McBride appears in The Color of Water. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: Dad
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Ruth tells her son James that her family would not have put up with being interviewed. She suspects her father... (full context)
Chapter 2: The Bicycle
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James narrates this chapter. When he is fourteen his stepfather Hunter Jordan dies, and his mother... (full context)
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James reacts to his stepfather’s death by rebelling. He skips class, smokes weed, shoplifts, and steals... (full context)
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As a kid, James is aware that his mother is strange— she’s light skinned, doesn’t have any family, and... (full context)
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On his first day of school Ruth walks James to the bus stop. It’s the first time he can remember being alone with his... (full context)
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A few weeks later, James gets off the bus and panics when he realizes Ruth isn’t there to meet him.... (full context)
Chapter 4: Black Power
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As a child, James wonders about his mother’s family history. Because Ruth won’t answer many of his questions, James... (full context)
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James already feels that something is not right in his family. He describes feeling “something inside... (full context)
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One night James stays up until 2 A.M. to confront Ruth about his origins. She just laughs and... (full context)
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In 1966, at age nine, James becomes more aware of the black power movement. His home and neighborhood are transformed as... (full context)
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James describes his upbringing as being defined by “a curious blend of Jewish-European and African-American distrust... (full context)
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James understands from reading the newspaper and watching television that many white people are uncomfortable around... (full context)
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James worries about his mother’s safety, and as a child is confused by her comfort in... (full context)
Chapter 6: The New Testament
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...list of favorite ministers. These include her late husband Andrew Dennis McBride, among others who, James notes, are all black and “quite dead.” Ruth likes old-fashioned preachers, who talk of God... (full context)
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During his childhood, James is grateful that his mother never “gets the spirit” and loses control at church, and... (full context)
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When James watches his mother cry in church he assumes it’s because she wants to be black,... (full context)
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James asks Ruth if God is black or white. Ruth explains God is neither black nor... (full context)
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...of Ruth’s children deal with race-related identity crises at various points in their lives. Richie, James’s older brother, imagines he’s green like the Incredible Hulk, and not black or white. In... (full context)
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James remembers reciting Bible stories and playing instruments in front of the congregation each Easter. One... (full context)
Chapter 8: Brothers and Sisters
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Growing up, James is “lost in the sauce,” unremarkable compared to his eleven siblings. He loves his brothers... (full context)
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Dennis, James’s oldest sibling, is held up as an example for the rest of the children to... (full context)
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James’s second oldest sister is Helen. She’s artistic and well liked by the neighborhood boys. Although... (full context)
Chapter 10: School
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Ironically, although his mother was raised as an Orthodox Jew, James doesn’t realize that Jewish people exist outside of the Bible until he goes shopping for... (full context)
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James recognizes that Jewish people are different from other white people, but he doesn’t feel any... (full context)
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...one of academic excellence. Ruth makes sure to take every opportunity she can to transfer James and his siblings from their neighborhood schools to better-performing, predominantly white and Jewish public schools. (full context)
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While most of the other children in James’s neighborhood walk to the local schools, James and his siblings take buses to white and... (full context)
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In late elementary school James begins to escape from reality through music, books, and his own imagination. He imagines a... (full context)
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James is generally a good kid—he does well in school, goes to church, and even has... (full context)
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James describes the question of race as “a silent power” which dominates his childhood household. Ruth,... (full context)
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...that the other children don’t have to follow the rules so closely either. Many of James’s siblings become excited by the Black Power movements, and express newfound black pride. (full context)
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James’s older brother Richie is arrested by the police during a summer home from college. Richie... (full context)
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As he gets older, James becomes more embarrassed of his white mother. One day, instead of walking to the store... (full context)
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As a child, James felt it would be easier if he were just black or white, and he wishes... (full context)
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James remembers one day in school when his classmates forced him to dance like James Brown.... (full context)
Chapter 12: Daddy
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...inviting her (and her eight children) out on a date to the movies. All of James’s brothers and sisters see themselves as full siblings, although some of them are half siblings,... (full context)
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...Jordan values neatness and order, and so doesn’t live with Ruth and her children. When James is seven Hunter buys the family a house in Queens, but he remains in his... (full context)
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James notices that his stepfather is “odd.” He’s of a different generation than many of James’... (full context)
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One night, when James is fourteen and Hunter is in his seventies, he complains of a headache. He goes... (full context)
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...and begins to regain his speech, but is still clearly ill. One day, he takes James to the garage and they sit in his car. Hunter wants to drive one last... (full context)
Chapter 14: Chicken Man
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...life.” She does her best to maintain her household, but emotionally she is falling apart. James doesn’t like being around the house with his devastated mother, and so he begins sneaking... (full context)
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At fourteen, James is finally the oldest child in his house, but instead of ruling over his siblings... (full context)
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James snatches purses and even robs a drug dealer with his straight razor and his friend... (full context)
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James forges his report card for a while, and enlists Kathy to help. However, Kathy gives... (full context)
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Kentucky is not a punishment for James. He loves Jack, and feels free running around Louisville. He spends a lot of time... (full context)
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The men on the Corner look out for James. He steals a few car batteries with one man, Pike, but when they are shot... (full context)
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A few days later, James gets a real look at what permanent life on the Corner could look like. He... (full context)
Chapter 16: Driving
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One morning in 1973, when James is sixteen, Ruth decides she’s going to learn to drive Hunter Jordan’s car. James doesn’t... (full context)
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Looking back, James sees that it took Ruth a decade to recover from her second husband’s death. She... (full context)
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...hope in Jesus, and goes to church every Sunday regardless of how awful she feels. James notes the irony that once Ruth couldn’t make herself walk into a church, and now... (full context)
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Ruth has convinced herself that she needs to learn how to drive, and recruits James to help her. The two of them drive a few blocks down the street to... (full context)
Chapter 18: Lost in Delaware
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...her second husband, her house is in disrepair and she’s unable to maintain it financially. James is excited to leave; his old friends are bad news, and he’ll probably have to... (full context)
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James and his family are shocked by the suburbs. Unlike in New York, where they could... (full context)
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James understands that Ruth is “spinning in crazy circles only because she was trying to survive,”... (full context)
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Luckily, James and his sisters like Du Pont high school. James finds the schoolwork easy and commits... (full context)
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James is a terrible butler, but he gets along with Mrs. Dawson, who is the first... (full context)
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James considers graduating from high school and immediately trying to start a music career, but more... (full context)
Chapter 19: The Promise
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...but makes very little money, which is why, later in life, she tries to keep James from following the same career path. Dennis is so poor he can’t afford rent, and... (full context)
Chapter 20: Old Man Shilsky
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In 1982 James is living in Boston and working as a journalist at The Boston Globe. He’s torn... (full context)
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After years of badgering, James has finally found out about Suffolk, Virginia, where Ruth grew up. James wants to understand... (full context)
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James knocks on a stranger’s door on a whim, and asks if the elderly black man... (full context)
Chapter 22: A Jew Discovered
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In August 1992 James returns to Suffolk to further investigate his mother’s past. James has recovered his uncle Sam’s... (full context)
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James makes his way to the Suffolk synagogue, the very same building where his grandfather led... (full context)
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James thinks back to a 1982 trip to Suffolk when he met Aubrey Rubenstein, an office... (full context)
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Back in 1992, James wanders around Suffolk. He imagines how his grandmother (Mameh) must have felt—isolated and lonely, in... (full context)
Chapter 23: Dennis
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...Dennis in the hospital Ruth realizes she’s pregnant, and Dennis decides they’ll name the child James, if he’s a boy. Ruth feels in her heart that her husband is going to... (full context)
Chapter 24: New Brown
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Ruth and James attend the fortieth anniversary of the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in 1994. This church... (full context)
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Ruth rarely talks, or even thinks about her first husband Dennis. James thinks of her memory as “like a minefield, each recollection a potential booby trap,” and... (full context)
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James and Ruth do not like the new minister, who hasn’t paid the proper respect to... (full context)
Chapter 25: Finding Ruthie
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In 1993, as James puts together Ruth’s will, the two of them discuss where she wants to be buried.... (full context)
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James believes it took him so long to uncover Ruth’s past because he spent so long... (full context)
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Ruth hates that James keeps quitting his jobs, but just like she ran from her troubles, James feels that... (full context)
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It takes James over a decade to get Ruth to sit down for his interviews, a process he... (full context)
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...Hook to visit her church and old friends, even as the neighborhood gets more dangerous. James describes his mother as living her life like she’s piloting an airplane. She lets it... (full context)
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In 1993, James and Ruth return to Suffolk. It’s the first time Ruth has been in fifty years,... (full context)
Epilogue
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...sewers and survived for over a year. In 1980, Halina’s son David Lee Preston and James meet while working at the Wilmington News Journal. The two become best friends, and over... (full context)
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When James marries his wife, Stephanie, David is invited, and when David marries his wife, Rondee, in... (full context)
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...to the wedding. Late in life she has started to take pictures of important moments. James suspects this is because she knows “each memory is too important to lose, having lost... (full context)
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Walking through the synagogue, James reflects that it seems like his mother is visiting a museum. He saw how her... (full context)