Group discusses book about Suffolk

Published 10:32 pm Thursday, February 11, 2010

On a rainy Tuesday night, a group of six people gathers in a circle at the North Suffolk Library.

The avid readers are discussing “The Color of Water” by James McBride — quite possibly the only book set in Suffolk, Va. to spend two years on “The New York Times” bestseller list.

First published in 1996, “The Color of Water” is the true story of a white Orthodox Jewish woman who grew up in Suffolk, the daughter of the local rabbi, and later married a black man — a match strictly forbidden by her family. Now living in New York, Ruth McBride (known as Rachel Shilsky while living in Suffolk) has eight children with her husband, including “The Color of Water” author James McBride.

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Following her first husband’s death, McBride marries another black man and has four more children with him. Though her second husband also passed away, Ruth McBride-Jordan pinched pennies to send every child to college, taught them that race should not define them, and instilled in them the values that would guide them in life.

The book tells Ruth’s story as well as the author’s, and also gives the account of James McBride’s trip to Suffolk in 1992 to find out more about his mother’s life.

“It was really interesting to look at Suffolk history at a time when it was taking place,” said Hannah Kiesewetter, a library employee and one of the team of leaders who pick the titles for the book chats.

Kiesewetter said the team picked the book partially because it is set in Suffolk.

“I think it definitely adds to it, because it gives you some perspective on what they’re talking about,” Kiesewetter said. “This is how it was different then, and I can see what it looks like now.”

Shilsky’s father was the rabbi in several towns up and down the Eastern seaboard throughout her childhood — Glens Falls, N.Y.; Belleville, N.J.; Springfield, Mass. Then, in 1929, the family moved to Suffolk when the future Ruth McBride was about 8 or 9 years old.

“I still remember the smell of the South,” writes McBride in the book, quoting his mother. “It smelled like azaleas. And leaves. And peanuts. Peanuts everywhere.”

Ruth McBride reminisced about different aspects of Suffolk throughout the book, particularly the generosity of Amedeo Obici.

“Planters Peanuts had their headquarters in Suffolk. Mr. Obici ran it. He was a big deal in town. The big peanut man. He gave a lot of money out to people. He built a hospital.”

The Shilsky family lived in the back of their general store, which was located where the McDonald’s restaurant on North Main Street is now located.

“Our store was at an intersection at the edge of town on a long, sloping hill,” writes McBride. “If you stood in front of the store and looked right, you saw the town — the railroad tracks, the department stores like Leggets and Woolworth. If you looked straight ahead, you saw the courthouse, the jailhouse, the county clerk’s office, and the road to Norfolk. To the left was the Jaffe slaughterhouse and the wharf where the Nansemond River met the Main Street Bridge.”

Shilsky’s experience in Suffolk was not a good one, however. Her family was ostracized by many because they were Jewish, according to the book. That is why she eventually left for New York.

“Ruth was a remarkable woman,” says Don Speight in the book chat Tuesday night. In a remarkable coincidence, Ruth McBride-Jordan died Jan. 9, exactly one month before the book club was set to discuss the book that focuses on her life.

The book chat is held the second Tuesday of every month. The next chat will be on Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

For more information on the book chats, call 514-7150.