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In this chapter, Ruth describes the ominous presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the South, specifically in Suffolk. The palpable threat to both blacks and Jews spurred the beginning of Ruth's lifelong dislike of the South. She describes her older brother Sam, a sweet and somewhat timid boy who ran away from home at the age of fifteen, driven away by the tremendous burden of Tateh's expectations. Ruth recalls that her father's harshness with Sam exceeded even the stringency of his demands on Ruth and her sister Dee-Dee. Despite efforts on the part of Ruth and her mother to convince Sam to return home, Ruth never saw her brother again. Years later she learned that he had been killed after joining the army to fight in World War II.
James gives an amusing and descriptive account of the chaotic atmosphere in his mother's household of twelve children. James and his siblings shared virtually all possessions and activities, which fostered competition as well as closeness. While James emphasizes his family's poverty, he also comments on its resourcefulness and vitality. His oldest brother, Dennis, served as a role model for all of the younger siblings. Everyone was held to the standard of Dennis's his good behavior and accomplishments. While Dennis kept private his own controversial activities in the Civil Rights Movement, James's sister Helen quit school, became a hippie, and rejected what she labeled the "white man's education." One night, after an explosive fight with her sister Rosetta, fifteen-year-old Helen ran away from home. While Ruth soon discovered that Helen was staying with her sister Jack, she could not convince Helen to come home. Helen then disappeared from Jack's, this time for months. When Ruth finally learned she had moved to a room in a bad neighborhood, she attempted once again to convince her to return home. Without a word, Helen refused to see her.
In this chapter, Ruth discusses the hardships of being Jewish in the South during the first part of the twentieth century. Ruth endured constant ridicule at school and sought a way to escape her inferior status in Suffolk. She had difficulty making friends there, but she found one true childhood friend in Frances, a gentile girl who accepted Ruth's Jewish background. Ruth vividly portrays the devastating poverty that afflicted both white and black people in Suffolk.
Ruth's discussion of her family life touches upon many larger themes of the book. Ruth's experiences with her family involve her Jewish faith. Orthodox Judaism requires adherence to highly codified behaviors in daily life and in one's attitudes toward family. Ruth resisted her father's many arranged meetings with young Jewish men interested in marrying her. Ruth's break with her family was solidified by this lack of interest in a Jewish marriage, along with her wish to escape the oppression of the mid-19th-century South and her father's sexual and psychological abuse.
When Ruth left her family in Virginia, they sat shiva for her. In the Jewish faith, sitting shiva is a way of paying respects to the dead. Once the family has mourned the death of a family member, that family member cannot return to them. Ruth's crimes against her family were considered so egregious that they decided she was dead to them, and sat shiva for her to mourn her passing. Years after Ruth's separation from her family, she became desperate for money. Her first husband had died, and she lacked the resources necessary to raise eight children on her own. She contacted some members of her family, but no one would help her. Of all Ruth's problems with her family, this complete cutting of ties may be the most painful.
Several of Ruth's family members follow this pattern of alienation and lack of communication. Her brother Sam left home at fifteen, never to return or speak to his family again. Ruth's own daughter Helen also leaves home at fifteen. Helen initially refuses to come home or discuss her sudden departure. However, Ruth's separation from her family differed from Helen's separation from her mother. While Ruth is irreversibly alienated from her Jewish family, Ruth does not cut off ties with her daughter, but repeatedly encourages her to come home. Ruth's father told her never to return, but Ruth plead with Helen to come back so they can talk through their differences.
Ruth's best childhood friend, Frances, plays an important role in Ruth's life in Suffolk. Ruth has few positive memories from her childhood, but her time with Frances meant a great deal to her. Frances and her family accepted Ruth with warmth and kindness. Given the racial and societal conditions in Suffolk at that time, Ruth was tremendously grateful for their acceptance. Ruth was plagued by loneliness and exclusion for most of her childhood, and she recalls the time she spent with Frances as her sole relief from the duties of family, school, and religion.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Color of Water!