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April 19, 2006

History lesson

McBride, The Color of Water (1996) -- Jerz: American Lit II (EL 267)

“As she revealed the facts of her life I felt helpless, like I was watching her die and be reborn again (yet their 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. I can’t describe what a shock it was to hear words like ‘Tateh’ and ‘rov’ and ‘shiva’ and ‘Bubeh’ coming from Mommy’s mouth as she sat at the kitchen table in her Ewing home” (269).

Indeed it would be a surprise to have to reconstruct the image you had of your mother and your self-image by default. As she recited her history, the added information would have completely recast his ideas of what his mother, his siblings and he was like. What a revision.

I think I want to say I didn’t see a huge amount of symbolism in this story, perhaps since it was a personal account of his mother’s history as seen through his eyes. McBride didn’t try to turn his mother into anything more than what she was. He seemed content to present the situations and allow us to make our own assessments, which probably turned out to be favorable in the end.

Maybe that’s why I found the book enjoyable – I didn’t feel laden with several layers of images or the responsibility to dig through them. This one was more of a page turner. It’s also our first non-fiction, discounting the poetry we’ve read. McBride, Dr. Jerz pointed out, probably edited his words to make his mother more favorable than not; however, he isn’t the god of his own creations, as was Elmer Rice, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Flannery O’Connor.

Having said that, maybe one could write a paper from an archetypical perspective, comparing Mommy to Mameh and Bubeh and how they put their children first, despite troubling circumstances. James McBride (I think Dr. Jerz mentioned this) was on a quest to find himself, so he said, and to do that he had to understand his mom to a greater degree. Mommy was on a quest to find happiness, love and all the other things she lacked in Suffolk, Va. I also think there’s material there for a psychoanalytical criticism or perhaps an economic determinist paper, given the overtones of the class differences between McBride and his white peers.

Posted by MattHampton at April 19, 2006 10:57 AM


Great set of observations, Matt.

Unlike the other authors we've studied, McBride really is writing about real people and real events. But what we're studying is not those people and events, but the author's representation of them. And just as the author in a work of fiction can order sequences through flashbacks, arrange events to make contrasts (consider "Lost in Harlem" and "Lost in Delaware", two chapters placed next to each other), insert flashbacks or flashforwards or anecdotes in order to weave the separate incidents into a single story with a narrative thrust.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at April 19, 2006 11:25 AM

I can definitely see an opportunity for psychoanalytical criticism here; of course, you can analyze just about *anything* in literature from that perspective.

While I can agree that there isn't quite as much symbolism in this story as there has been in the fictional works of literature we've studied this semester, I think McBride's ability to draw out the symbolism in real life situations is an incredible skill just the same. I wonder what kinds of similar symbols and themes we would notice if we wrote our own life stories, or the life stories of those close to us?

Posted by: ChrisU at April 20, 2006 2:08 AM

Our class discussion made me think about the themes that would arise in my own life story. The push and pull of families moving apart and coming together again is something a notice a great deal in my own family. Just as several of the people in James' family had to strike out on their own and come back again.

Posted by: jennifer difulvio at April 20, 2006 11:36 AM

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