The Color of Water takes place on two parallel timelines. In the first timeline, which spans the early 20th century up until 1957, Ruth, James McBride’s mother, tells the story of her family’s immigration to America, her childhood, and her early adulthood in New York City. In the second timeline, told in alternating chapters, James tells his own life story, beginning in 1957, and ending with the book’s release in 1996.
Following the narrative chronologically, the book begins in Poland where Ruth’s Orthodox Jewish parents meet and marry. They immigrate to the United States, where her father, Tateh, works as a traveling rabbi before settling down and opening his own general store in Suffolk, Virginia. Tateh and Mameh, Ruth’s mother, have three children, Ruth (born Ruchel, which is Americanized to Rachel), Gladys (who goes by Dee-Dee), and Sam. Although Mameh is loving and devoted, Tateh is cruel, emotionally abusing his entire family and sexually abusing Ruth.
Ruth’s childhood is difficult. At home she must deal with her demanding father and work in his store, while in Suffolk she must deal with an apathetic or openly anti-Semitic public. She has only one friend, Frances, but Ruth doesn’t feel comfortable confiding in her. As a teenager Ruth falls in love and becomes pregnant by a local black boy named Peter. Her mother sends her to New York City where she gets an abortion, and Ruth is devastated to return home only to discover that Peter has impregnated a black girl and is marrying her. Ruth is upset at Peter, but she is more upset at a Southern culture that would not let her marry someone she loved because he was of a different race.
After she graduates high school Ruth moves to New York City, where she meets and falls in love with her first husband, changes her name from Rachel to Ruth, and converts to Christianity. Andrew Dennis McBride is a black man, and Ruth chooses to marry him instead of remaining with her white family, who disapprove of her interracial relationship. Ruth and Dennis have eight children together (the youngest being the author James) before Dennis dies suddenly of lung cancer. Ruth has lost the love of her life and at first has difficulty going on, but she eventually marries an older man named Hunter Jordan, who raises her children as his own, adding four more to make an even dozen.
James remembers a chaotic but generally happy childhood. He never met his biological father, but sees Hunter as his Dad. However, Hunter dies when James is fourteen, and the whole family begins to fall apart. Ruth is too upset to function, and James represses his feelings with drugs, alcohol, and petty crime. Ruth is unable to reform him, so she sends her son to Louisville, Kentucky, where he spends a summer hanging out with drunks on a Corner, realizing in the process that if he cannot get his act together he will end up in jail or dead. James does his best to make up for his lost years, and eventually goes on to study at Oberlin and Columbia University. He works alternately as a journalist and a musician, eventually quitting his job at a national newspaper to write a book on his white mother’s life and his family history.
The final chapters of the book chronicle James’ uncovering of Ruth’s past. Although she had actively blocked her former self from her mind, James helps her reconcile young Jewish Rachel with mother of twelve Ruth, reconnecting her with old friends, her old hometown, and her old self.