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“The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Pages
Jul 31st, 2023

review by Meredith McKinnie

“I was what I was and could no more choose my family, even a family denied me, than I could choose a country that denies us all the same.”

On a 19th century Virginia plantation, young Hiram Walker knows only the landscape in front of him. As the dominance of American chattel slavery begins its demise, Hiram and his fellow Tasked, as Coates refers to the enslaved in the book, are seeing the ripples of discord among abolitionists and plantation owners that are intent on maintaining their way of life. Hiram, whose white biological father is the Lockless plantation owner, is summoned to the Main House to care for his father’s legitimate son Maynard. Possessing a photographic memory, Hiram grapples with the onslaught of collective memories of bondage, including his mother being sold when he was only nine. When Maynard drowns at a bridge crossing and Hiram is mysteriously found alive on the riverbank, Hiram uncovers his power of conduction, the ability to move people through time and space. As his father begins an emotional decline made more pertinent by the financially-failing plantation, Hiram executes an escape that channels him into an underground network of abolitionists where he meets Moses, a literary recreation of Harriet Tubman, noted for helping others escape American bondage. Torn between the promise of freedom and a paradoxical longing for home and the people he left behind, Hiram navigates a secret world of narrow escapes and loss as he wrestles with the budding reality of young love. 

Coates’ writing possesses a lyrical quality, the phrases that sing across the page: “The tree of our family was parted – branches here, roots there – parted for their lumber.” In this adaptation of the slave narrative genre, Coates weaves the historical and the fantastical, imagining what elements of magic may have aided in slaves defying the impossible and obtaining freedom. This meditation on memory framed in the horrors of American slavery dares to challenge history’s version of events, to deem the enslaved as their own saviors long before their full humanity was legally recognized. Coates blends his tale of the Underground Railroad in a similar fashion to author Colson Whitehead, yet with the added element of divine intervention, a God living among the people in Moses and her comrades. Coates creates characters that we long to root for, yet keeps them distantly drifting in a plot that meanders. Some moments hit the mark and are rather poignant, while others seem lost in the very fog that accompanies the conductions across the riverbanks. 

As a devotee to historical fiction and the slave narrative genre, I enjoyed this book, especially for the melodic writing style. I would hesitate to suggest it to someone who does not idolize the genre for the complicated plot gaps and loose ends. Ta-Nehisi Coates has also written three works of nonfiction, including Between the World and Me which won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction. His meditations on race can also be found in the comic books he’s written for Marvel such as Black Panther and Captain America. 

“I was young and love to me was a fuse that was lit, not a garden that was grown. Love was not concerned with any deep knowledge of its object, of their wants and dreams, but mainly with the joy felt in their presence and the sickness felt in their departure.”