Megan Misiewicz

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

Masterfully composed by journalist and musician James McBride, The Color of Water seamlessly weaves together two coming-of-age narratives. The first describes the author’s mother, Rachel Shilsky – the daughter of a poor, itinerant rabbi – as she grows up in a small Southern town that is as anti-Semitic as it is racist. The second story follows the early life of McBride himself, the eighth of 12 mixed-race children raised in the projects of Brooklyn. These two stories are expressed in captivating prose, exploring issues of race, class, faith, and identity.

McBride’s mother, later known as Ruth McBride Jordan, stands out as one of the most resolute and inimitable characters in modern literature. I first read this book a decade ago, and her unique perspective and vernacular continue to resound in my mind. Raised in an abusive household, Jordan interprets her childhood trauma in a way that is forthright and expressive, yet lacking in self-pity. Over time, we see her transform from an emotionally-stunted Orthodox Jewish teen to an indomitable Christian woman who identifies most strongly with the black community.

The title of the book derives from a childhood conversation McBride has with his mother. Noting that she usually cries during church services, he wonders if this is because she wishes to be black like the other congregants. He asks her if God is black or white, to which she responds, “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.” McBride’s own struggle to understand his racial identity is closely bound up with his mother’s complex history. This is a relationship he explores with tenderness, candor, and unflinching self-examination.

Due to the multi-faceted natures of both stories, it is difficult to characterize this book. The Color of Water embodies the many layers that comprise an identity and the faith that brings great love and triumph out of suffering. It is a son’s vibrant tribute to the tenacity of his mother, and a story of deep, abiding love. It is powerfully illuminating for empathizing with the other, and instructive for how a faith community can serve as either a great barrier or an irreplaceable support for building that understanding.

Note: Though this book is not overly explicit in nature, there are scenes and themes that could be triggering for survivors of sexual abuse.

Published by Riverhead Books in 1995; reissued 2006

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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (David Fickling Books, 2006)

In a mere 200 pages, John Boyne stunningly captures both the best and worst sides of humanity. This deceptively simple fable portrays the horrors of the Holocaust through the innocent eyes of its nine-year-old protagonist, Bruno, the son of a commanding Nazi officer. 

Bruno knows little about the war – and nothing about the persecution of the Jews – when he arrives at Auschwitz. He only knows that his family has been forced to leave their home in Berlin on account of his father’s job. He finds himself in an isolated town, living in a cheerless house that borders something very mysterious. On the other side of a tall, barbed-wire fence, he sees hundreds of men, from young boys to the elderly, all wearing identical striped pyjamas and forlorn expressions. When Bruno asks about his new neighbors, he is told to ignore them, that they really aren’t “people at all.”

Despite his father’s explicit instructions, Bruno walks along the fence for hours each day and befriends a boy on the other side named Shmuel. Over the course of a year, the two boys meet nearly every day, although Bruno cannot understand why they can never be on the same side of the fence to play.

The stark juxtaposition of the narrator’s guileless, childlike observations with the appalling realities of Auschwitz and World War II make this book utterly unique and unforgettable. Shmuel and Bruno form a lasting, affectionate friendship, unsullied by the prejudices tearing their families apart. In viewing the Holocaust through Bruno’s perspective, the reader grapples with the complexity of the human condition, the atrocities of war, and the evil that conceived of and permitted the Holocaust to occur. In writing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne challenges us all to closely examine ourselves, to recognize our common humanity, and to guard vigilantly against anything like the Holocaust from ever happening again.

In an age rife with divisiveness, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is particularly relevant for Christian audiences. It urges us to recognize all people as bearers of the Imago Dei and reminds us, in hauntingly simple prose, that we must become like little children in order to possess the Kingdom.

Note: This review uses the original UK spelling of “pyjamas.” US editions have changed the title to reflect the common American spelling of “pajamas.”

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The Life We Never Expected by Andrew & Rachel Wilson

Written by the parents of two autistic children, The Life We Never Expected contains a wealth of wisdom and practical strategies for raising children with special needs. Keenly insightful and concise enough even for the most sleep-deprived parent, this book radiates empathy and vulnerability as the Wilsons reflect on their parenting experience through five cycles of five repeating themes: weeping, worshipping, waiting, witnessing, and breathe.

The “Weeping” chapters discuss the importance of lamentation and grieving, both before God and with others. As a caretaker of the physically disabled and of children with special needs, these sections deeply resonate with my experience. The book normalizes the anxiety and distress of parents, bringing those emotions into the congregation so that we might “bear one another’s burdens” more honestly.

The parts on “Worshipping” serve as devotionals, emphasizing the priority of the spiritual life in the face of relentless challenges. One of my favorite chapters discusses the preeminence of joy in biblical worship. Andrew quotes C.S. Lewis saying, “It is a Christian duty for everyone to be as happy as he can.” He then reflects on how this “fight for joy” impacts his ability to parent and live well, sharing strategies for finding joy in the Lord.

The “Waiting” sections offer theological reflections on some of our deepest questions, as Christians living in a world fraught with trauma and sorrow. How can we maintain hope in the face of unanswered prayer? How does the parent of a regressing autistic understand the Bible’s healing narratives? These questions are thoughtfully and sensitively explored.

The “Witnessing” chapters alternate between the witness offered by special needs individuals, and the personal witness of God’s faithful care for the Wilson family. One especially poignant story involves a boy with Down’s syndrome. In his infancy, someone prophesied that he would touch nations. At the time, this seemed like a painful reminder of the impossible. But years later, that child met a visitor from Kenya. Astonished by the child’s genuine love for God, the man later accepted a government post advocating for children with special needs.

This vibrant little book reaches an extraordinary level of depth for its brevity. I recommend it not only for caretakers and parents of special needs children, but also for new parents, those in ministry, and anyone struggling to maintain faith in the midst of overwhelming, life-changing circumstances.

Looking for more advice on parenting, especially through difficult seasons? On November 10th-11th, Stone Hill will be holding a forum on parenting teens. Learn more here.

Learn more about the book:

Andrew Wilson on the book’s publication (THINK)

Author interview (Jelly Telly Parenting)

Publisher’s site, with excerpt

Public library / B&N / IndieBound / Amazon

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