The Color of Water by James McBride

McBride's memoir is both autobiographical and biographical--about his mother. The subtitle "A Black Man's Tribute to his White Mother" gives some sense of the issues covered, although the identity territory he covers is even wider ranging. His parents were a mixed-race couple in the 40s, and his mother had been raised Jewish in Virginia.

McBride is deeply respectful of his mother, and yet clear about how her experiences have left her somewhat fragmented. On the up side, she sent all 12 of her children to college, and all are professionals. She was also widowed by 2 husbands, both of them African-American men, and when James left for college, she had only about $14 to give him.

The story is remarkable, and McBride tells it like the composer he is. He switches from his mother's voice to his own, seeming to skip around at times. This echoes the fragmentation of the information that his mother is willing to give him about her own past and her total break with her Jewish family (they sat shiva for her, meaning she was dead to them, when she married a black man).

It's not until the last few chapters that I felt I had a sense of his mother's personal. She seems alternately staunch and frantic, a pillar of strength and a monument to indecision. It's clear that she is a unique and amazing personality, never more so than when McBride reports that all 12 of the children and their spouses and their children come back to his sister's house in New Jersey every Christmas, and shows how the wishes of the entire clan hinge on his mother's diminutive presence.

Pages 217-218: All were clamoring to go to the movies. Then she says "I want to eat."
"The movie was instantly forgotten.
'Yeah! Let's eat!'
'I sure am hungry'
'Let's order out!'
From another room: 'I been waiting to eat all day...!'
Now that's what you call power."