The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
406 pages (Hardcover)
Published 9/24/19 by One World Books
Oprah’s Book Club Pick 2019
Genre – Literary Fiction / Magical Realism
Thank you to One World Books / NetGalley for the early digital copy in exchange for an honest review!
*I am a bit late with this review (clearly), so I was able to pick up the finished copy from the library. All quotes in review are from the finished copy.
Trigger warnings: Sexual, physical, and mental abuse / harassment. Mention of suicide. This is about slavery, so go in with a cautious mind when it comes to trigger warnings. I may not have caught everything.
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.
Story | What a remarkable stand on an era in time that is well known and thoroughly researched in the literature world.
“But it was still Virginia of old, where a dubious God held that those who would offer a man for sale were somehow more honorable than those who effected that sale.”
This is a story of a colored Task (slave), Hiram Walker, who flees the only place he has ever known, to experience and understand freedom. Liberation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when it’s a secret. The amount of trustworthy individuals is questionable and new places, unsettling.
Hiram is the offspring of Howell Walker, a plantation proprietor in Elm County, Virginia. Rose, Hiram’s mother, was a colored woman, thus causing Hiram to be a Task rather than Quality. He is to watch over Maynard, Howell’s son from a different woman. Maynard leaves much to be desired. He ends up with a lady named Corinne Quinn, a woman of considerable prosperity (inherited from her deceased parents).
Maynard and Hiram end up in a river where death is imminent. Maynard’s body is never found, presumed dead, but Hiram gets out alive. He is comatose for three days, murmuring words, and running a fever. When he awakens, he realizes that he has to escape and find the underground.
“A man is blooming inside me, George, and I cannot shackle him. He know too much. He seen too much. He has got to get out, this man, or he cannot live. I swear I fear what is coming. I fear my own hands.”
Sophia belongs to Nathaniel, Howell’s brother. Hiram is required to drive her to and from Nathaniel’s property every weekend. She loves to knit and have conversations with Hiram. They try to escape together. They discuss an escape route with Georgie Parks.
“Georgie, praised and esteemed by the whites, and held to have some secret life by the coloreds, would be their man.”
Georgie rats them out to Ryland’s Hounds—men who hunt for the Tasked that ran away—the night they arranged to leave. I never expected Georgie to rat them out, but that’s why I mentioned that all the characters in this novel are questionable until proven otherwise.
The journey continues on and only becomes more intense as the story rolls on. I don’t want to give away anything else because it will ruin the book for you. I encourage you to go pick it up!
There is a touch of magical realism mixed in with the story. Hiram has a power that will save him in certain situations. This was one aspect of the story line that I didn’t much care for. I knew about the magical realism before going into the novel, but I didn’t 100% know what to expect. If I’m being honest, the power that Hiram had didn’t make much sense to me. I don’t read this genre a lot. What I do know: It was called “conduction” and it only worked when water was involved. Hence why he was saved when him and his brother, Maynard, were in the river. Hiram doesn’t really understand it either, so maybe the reader isn’t really supposed to. I don’t know. Often it involves his mother, whom he has no recollection of. Howell sold her when Hiram was a child. If you have read this and are more of a critical reader than I am, educate me on the point of his power!
Other than a few chapters toward the end that made me want to fall asleep, the story was fascinating. There is an abundance of brutality involved, which was to be expected, but there is likewise a lot of love and friendship. There are enemies, but there are also hidden gems throughout the story.
Characters | There are a slew of people involved in the story, and everyone has a purpose. I never mixed them up, which surprised me. I have a hard time getting a lot of characters straight. You can tell that Coates considered each person carefully.
Hiram is my favorite out of all of them. He had flaws, but his strengths outweighed those by a long shot. He was strong-willed, tough, kind, and honorable. He did struggle at being a good judge of character, but as a reader, I did too. That’s how you know the characters are three-dimensional.
Hiram sacrificed a lot to save the people he loved. He understood what family meant. He cared about what his mother was like even though he didn’t remember her. She was just a puff of smoke in his memory. He was proud to be the son of a well-known and beautiful water dancer. He’s a very admirable man, and if you read this, I’m hopeful you would fall in love with him too.
Thena is next on my list. She went through a lot just to make sure she stayed alive and at the Lockless house. Her five babies were sold, and her husband died. She cursed him for dying because he would have stood up for those babies. She may not have had a ton of courage, but her good intentions were there; a very admirable woman.
Writing | Such magnificent prose. I can’t express to you how wonderful the writing is in this novel. It flows like water (pun intended). It’s smart, well crafted, and articulate. One of the better written books I have ever read. It’s the second on my list for writing style.
Overall |I 100% recommend this novel to anyone who is interested. It contains a few dry spots, and I understand magical realism may not be for everyone. Those two flaws don’t take away from the good in the story. It will shatter your heart into a million pieces and then mend it back together. I would read more from Ta-Nehisi Coates in a heartbeat.
“The gazelle does not match claws with the lion—he runs.”
“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.”
“Power makes slaves of masters.”
“For it is not simply by slavery that you are captured, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes.”
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