James McBride, has a personal element in its origin that is carried throughout the text. The author attempted to discern his race, and uncovered the touching story of his Jewish mother who experienced her own personal Diaspora: she immigrated from Poland to Virginia, and from Virginia to New York City. The latter move took much courage, because she had to abandon both her faith and her family in order to follow her heart, ultimately marrying the titular black man and founding a lasting family.
The aforementioned personal element really helps carry the narrative forward: James McBride wishes to tell his own story, but realizes that he cannot tell his own without telling his mother’s. Intentionally or not, this works quite well on a meta-textual level, as it reinforces how tightly tethered his family is to one another, which serves as an extreme counterpoint to her other family (indeed, her other life) that she left behind in Virginia.
The work also serves to broker a much-needed (then, as much as now) discussion regarding racial division within America. A neutral observer might view the subtitle of the work and ask why race is so important to the narrative; as McBride illustrates, one cannot discuss this particular tale of immigration, life, and success in the context of America without discussing the racism that permeated the country…how, even in the shadow of civil rights triumphs, many saw race as an excuse to divide, as opposed to an opportunity to come together.
Despite the rather serious premise, the book ultimately comes across as more uplifting than depressing. The memoirs of times when race relations are so bad also serve to make one grateful that present day America is much more tolerable regarding matters of race (though not, of course, perfect). McBride cleverly embeds this idea in the very title of his work, implying that the color of water—transparent clarity—can only come through a mixture of race as opposed to segregation.
The notion of reconciliation within the work is not limited to matters of race: the epilogue of the story features McBride becoming more in touch with his Jewish heritage, effectively bringing the journey of his mother full circle: as she had to leave Judaism behind in order to forge a new life and a new identity, James McBride has to re-discover it as a way of determining his own identity. Throughout the work, there is an undercurrent of the importance of education. The text emphasizes that all twelve of Ruth McBride’s children become college-educated, and readers feel every bump along the way as she tries to get them through college.
However, even while reading about these economic difficulties (a relatively touchy subject in the shadow of near economic collapse), readers are offered a glimpse of hope: the work alternates chapters written by James and chapters written by his mother, so even as the narrative makes one concerned for how the children will turn out, the gripping narrative of James reminds audiences that they will turn out just fine. In a way, that is the pattern of this book: tension and release, tension and release…the tension of Ruth’s struggle with her old family, and the release of the success with her new family.
There is the tension of financial hardships and the release of financial success. And in a story that is essentially about the American dream, tension comes from the possibility that America may not be ready for Ruth’s dream. In turn, the release is the joy of Ruth not settling for the American dream: rather, she creates and actualizes her own. The Gentle People: A Portrait of the Amish by James Warner provides an intimate look into a group that is still a mystery to many Americans: the Amish.
True to its word, the book is primarily comprised of photographs of the Amish that are artificially made to look like washed-out, “antique” photos. These are usually accompanied by a biblical verse, so one is able to more properly get into the Amish mindset. The old versus combined with the old-timey feel of the photographs really gives a feeling that one has become “unstuck in time,” as Vonnegut might say. Would-be sociologists will find this book to be a treasure trove of information regarding Amish society, particularly regarding relationships.
According to the book, public affection between married individuals is highly frowned upon by Amish society, as their affection for one another is too sacred to be shared with outsiders. As should not be surprising, many of the ideas are founded in Christian writings and have been espoused by Christian writers, though the Amish take things to their logical extreme: John Donne, for instance, counseled lovers not to weep at their beloved’s funeral, because the affection was too valuable to share with outsiders.
The Amish have taken Donne’s advice about love after death and have applied it to love during life, which can be something of a shock when one first reads about it. Of course, modern day feminists will find much within the book that is upsetting to their cause. The Amish have taken Ephesians to heart, and strictly expect wives to submit to their husbands in all matters. There are even limits to how much children can be exposed to the school system, with the assumption that only God can provide wisdom, and everything else is foolishness.
While these are basic precepts for Mormons and taken for granted in their society, it is jarring for onlookers (particularly liberal onlookers) to first see the number of restrictions that are placed on people and expressions. Fortunately, the author has a built in ethos: James Warner was born to a Mennonite household, so he has quite a bit of background regarding this issue. However, that is what makes the book disappointing on several levels: it does not concern itself with any deep revelations about Amish history, and does not serve well as an introduction to the Amish lifestyle simply because no historical context is offered.
The book and its photos are put forth as a kind of “slice of life” view of the Amish…however, considering that it was first printed over four decades ago (and was arguably offering out-of-date content even back then), the work struggles to find a proper audience in the modern day. After all, it is not a book for the Amish: its pictures and passages are simply redundant for them, and more conservative Amish may even consider its author something of a traitor…a man who abandoned their private lifestyle, only to make a profit by publically invading that privacy.
The book is also not intended for those wanting to fully learn about the Amish: as elaborated on above, it does not delve into their history, and offers no context for the actions taken by the Amish. The ideal audience for this book, interestingly enough, would be modern photography buffs: the pictures are quite striking, and the measures taken to make them seem more ancient than they are may very well offer the aspiring photographer new tricks for his or her toolbox. For everyone else? There are far better books about the Amish, especially for those who wish to know their full story.