Mothers are supposed to be an open book to their curious children, but when they are not, so much the better for an author. Take Ruth Shilsky, who is anything but a standard-issue mom. A rebellious daughter of an authoritarian and abusive father who happens to be an Orthodox rabbi, she leaves her home in rural Virginia in 1941 and ventures north to Harlem, where she marries a black factory worker turned minister. Then, renouncing her own religion, she starts a Baptist church in her living room. Through it all she remains a mystery to friends and even to her family of (eventually) 12 children, deflecting dinner-table questions about her birthplace, her parents and even about race. When asked by her perplexed son James whether God is white or black, Ruth sighs and tells him, "God is the color of water. Water doesn't have a color."
This memoir, written by James (a saxophonist, songwriter, journalist and former PEOPLE writer), weaves Ruth's troubled past with his recollections of growing up with a white mother in an all-black world. Molested by her father, forbidden to make friends with blacks or gentiles, watching her beloved but sickly mother fade and her father philander, she leaves home to survive. Once in Harlem, she shrugs off the racial insults pitched by blacks as well as whites and tends tenaciously to her family. She even manages to send her brood through college on a bank clerk's wages and a wealth of determination.
While Ruth holds the family together, James periodically falls apart. He wrestles with his mixed-race identity, and during the turbulent era of the Black Panthers, though he is embarrassed by his white mother, he fears for her safety. The two stories reach an effective crescendo when Ruth overcomes the pain of her long-buried memories and James makes peace with his Jewish roots. (Riverhead, $21.95)