Water Dancer, The

Ta-Nehisi Coates
From the National Book Award-winning author of Between the World and Me, a boldly conjured debut novel about a magical gift, a devastating loss, and an underground war for freedom. 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 idealistic 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. Advance praise for The Water Dancer "In prose that sings and imagination that soars, Coates further cements himself as one of this generation's most important writers, tackling one of America's oldest and darkest periods with grace and inventiveness. This is bold, dazzling, and not to be missed."--Publishers Weekly (starred review) "Coates brings his considerable talent for racial and social analysis to his debut novel, which captures the brutality of slavery and explores the underlying truth that slaveholders could not dehumanize the enslaved without also dehumanizing themselves. Beautifully written, this is a deeply and soulfully imagined look at slavery and human aspirations."--Booklist (starred review)


Reviewed: 2019-09-27

While I was reading this book, I kept experiencing the oddest sense of déjà vu. I know what's going to happen, I kept telling myself. I know what this man is going to do!

Turns out, I'm NOT psychic. Ta-Nehisi Coates explains at the end that he based some of the character's stories on real underground railroad narratives - specifically those found in the first-hand narratives William Still collected in a book that's been known under a variety of titles (but luckily for all of us, it's about to be re-released in a new edition from Modern Library under the title The Underground Railroad Records: Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom.) Reading those accounts is harrowing, so it's no surprise that this story is also sometimes harrowing, but as I am about to tell you, this is a story about love and as such it is beautiful.

Based very loosely on the real Underground Railroad, including Harriet Tubman (though usually referring to her as Moses, as she was known) and other escaped slave narratives, Coates weaves his story around historical truths and adds to the story some magic, his version of African myth, songs, stories and all sorts of other interesting things to tell a beautiful narrative about a man who loves his family and learns that freedom is not real until it is a reality for everyone.

Stories of escaped slaves used to seem to me something like adventure stories when I was a child, but Coates knows what grown-ups know - that in fact, it's usually about family (I use family not meaning "having the same bloodline") and the sense of being truly free in a country that prides itself on "freedom." Hiram Walker, the main character, grows and changes, comes into his own and learns his power in this novel. I don't think anything really could spoil it because it's the story itself - not any one part - that makes this so affecting.

The writing is uneven, the terrain of the Underground Railroad and slavery have been around for...a while, but this novel is well worth a read, especially for those of us who read every word of nonfiction the author writes. This first novel offers us another perspective from a man whose nonfiction is relentless and [some have called] challenging. This offers both more and less nuance in various ways. His fiction is more simple (but this is a first novel) in some respects and deeper in others - here the depth comes with human experience rather than facts and history. His nonfiction digs deep. In The Water Dancer he allows for and accepts more human frailty.

It may sound insane, but this is an optimistic novel. While the war on slavery was quite real and more horrific than any novel could truly show, his most genuine moments are when he shows the beauty of the black family and the love that can and does flow so bounteously. It reminded me a little bit of James Baldwin's beautiful portrayal of black love in If Beale Street Could Talk. Just as interesting is his handling of fear. I honestly cannot remember another piece of fiction that so purely captures and puts into a character's mouth the real fear of freedom, painful memories and trauma the way he does here. And his characters argue all sides of all of these situations.

I'm so used to seeing the brain of Ta-Nehisi Coates, but here I saw his heart.

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