The Color of Water
Chapter 13—New York
Ruth's mother sent Ruth to New York City, to the home of Ruth's aunts. Ruth's aunts tended to regard Mameh with little respect, primarily due to her disability. They treated Ruth as inferior to their own daughters. However, Ruth's grandmother, Bubeh, treated Ruth well. Ruth also remembers with gratitude her Aunt Betsy's treatment of her. After Aunt Betsy repeatedly asked Ruth what the matter was, Ruth finally broke down and admitted that she was pregnant. Aunt Betsy not only kept the secret, she connected Ruth to a doctor willing to perform abortions.
Chapter 14—Chicken Man
After his stepfather died, James began to do poorly in school, use drugs, and get involved in petty thief. He was only aware later that much of this phase related to the anger he felt at his situation. After Ruth discovered that not only were James's grades poor, but he had been skipping school entirely, she sent him to his sister Jack's house in Louisville, Kentucky, for the summer. James ended up spending three consecutive summers in Louisville. Jack's husband Big Richard and his friends, southern working men, hung out day and night on "the corner," where James says he received his "true street education." Chicken Man was James's favorite local man, and the one from whom he learned the most. While James was working at the gas station, he got in a fight with his boss's friend and was fired. James ranted to Chicken Man about his wish for a gun, and Chicken Man responded seriously. Chicken Man recognized his failures in life, and urged James to educate himself and work hard. Chicken Man made a negative example of himself and the men on the corner. Shortly after his talk with James, Chicken Man had a dispute with a woman who returned later that day and stabbed him to death.
During her junior year of high school, Ruth stayed with Bubeh in New York. The school she was attending was too hard, however, and she had to return to Suffolk to complete high school. Upon her return she visited Peter, who claimed he still loved her. However, while she was working at her family's store one day, Ruth overheard someone say that Peter had gotten a black girl pregnant and was to marry her. She approached Peter, who said he was marrying the girl as a result of pressure from his family. At that moment, Ruth felt sure that she had to escape Suffolk. Tateh forbid Ruth to attend her graduation because part of it was to take place in a Protestant church. Ruth defied her father and planned to attend graduation. However, when she approached the threshold of the church, she was unable to go through with it. She took the bus to New York City the very next day.
Ruth's aunts have more money than Ruth's mother. They regard their sister as sickly, and correspondingly treat Ruth with more strictness than they do their own daughters. They provide jobs and shelter for Ruth on her trips to New York, but they do not allow her to become close to them. Because she has come to expect emotional distance, Ruth is surprised and touched when her Aunt Betsy reacts so thoughtfully to the news of Ruth's pregnancy. Given her desperate situation, Ruth felt tremendously grateful for her aunt's acceptance and help.
James had pivotal experiences in Kentucky, living with his sister Jack and her husband. He eventually gained insight from his interactions with the working men on the street corner in Louisville. The men planted the seeds of change in James, although the fruit of those seeds did not blossom immediately. James witnessed the consequences of a lack of education, the tendency to drink or use drugs, and the use of violence to resolve situations. As a result, he became aware of the importance of taking an active role in his own life and future. Chicken Man explicitly warned him of what would happen if he did not take charge, emphasizing that intelligence alone does not guarantee success. Intelligence must be accompanied by an equally strong sense of motivation. Chicken Man's warning articulates the lesson James learns from all of the men on the corner, most of whom have dead-end lives like Chicken Man's.
Ruth's argument with her father about graduation speaks volumes about her relationship with him, and the strength of cultural and religious traditions. Ruth and her father have several large conflicts over the course of her life with her family. However, this argument is particularly telling. Ruth genuinely wanted to attend her graduation, not just for the sake of attending, but because attending became a symbolic victory over her father. Ruth decided to ignore her father's prohibition, rather than seeking his permission. However, when she attempted to cross the threshold of a gentile church for the first time, Ruth realized that she had not completely shed her father's restrictive interpretation of the Jewish faith or her concern about her family's opinion of her. This setback greatly upset Ruth, but she also recognized that the graduation debate would be one of the last times when her family's expectations dictated her behavior.