The Water Dancer
Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her — but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.
So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the deep South to dangerously utopic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.
This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children — the violent and capricious separation of families — and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates | Publisher: One World
Rating: 4 / 5
Big thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for giving me an advanced reading copy of this fantastic book.
The Water Dancer reads like a classic — weighty, important, immersive. It’s also incredibly creative. What Coates does with Harriet Tubman as a human legend and with the language of the underground railroad is unlike anything I’ve ever read before.
The story is told from the first-person perspective of Hiram, although you can tell he’s speaking from the future, looking back on these parts of his life and telling the story of what happened. He is a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation. The story begins from a point of action — Hiram’s horse and cart fall into the river and he nearly drowns — and then spins back to his childhood, just after his mother was sold. Something strange happens to him in both instances — the story’s element of magical realism.
Later in his life, Hiram joins “the Underground” and begins learning the art of “conduction.” He journeys back and forth, up and down the coast, finding his purpose, clarifying his own values, and making his mark on the world — big and small.
It’s not an easy life that he narrates for us, but it’s incredibly introspective. That’s what really sets this story apart from others I’ve read on the topic / era — this is about the systems, yes, but it’s even more about the people inside them (good and bad) and the sort of gray lines that exist when it comes to interpersonal relationships.
I thought the story moved a little slowly, which is why this wasn’t a 5-star book for me. But it really did feel like a classic — you know, how they aren’t always the most engaging books, but they are engaging enough, and they are also the most important books. That’s how this one felt to me.
I remain most impressed by Coates’s use of magical realism — when it’s done right, magical realism calls attention to a real-world thing, rather than to itself. It’s not the point of the story; it helps you see the point more clearly. This is what he’s done so masterfully here. And it’s fantastic.