Book set in Suffolk honored

Published 11:46 pm Friday, February 7, 2014

A book set largely in Suffolk was among those Amazon named to its “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime” list released this week, compiled by Amazon’s book editors.

“The Color of Water” by James McBride was listed alongside classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “1984.”

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. Ruth McBride (known as Rachel Shilsky while living in Suffolk) moved to New York and had eight children with her husband, including “The Color of Water” author James McBride.

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Following her first husband’s death, McBride married another black man and had 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’s title derives from what she told her children: “God is the color of water.”

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.

The Shilsky family immigrated to America in the 1920s. Her father was the rabbi in several towns up and down the Eastern seaboard throughout her childhood. 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 near the current intersection of North Main Street and Constance Road.

“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 Leggett’s 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. In a town where deeds to homes in Riverview at the time said “For white Anglo-Saxon Protestants only,” according to the book, her family was ostracized by many because they were Jewish.

The book is available at most booksellers, and the Suffolk Public Library system has eight copies.

Click here for the full list.