The Water Dancer / Ta-Nehisi Coates

It took me sometime to come back and write this review, because there was just so much to digest. This was utterly the most beautifully written, heavy, and tragic story. A story that, while fiction with a touch of fantasy, is heavily rooted in historical fact. I found out about this book thanks to the queen herself, as this was an Oprah book club pick this fall.

Synopsis: 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.

Basically, Hiram has a photographic memory and can remember everything he lays eyes upon except for his mother. His mother was sold south when Hiram was very young by his own father, the master of the failing Virginia Plantation where Hiram was born. Hiram finds that on top of his photographic memory, he has the power of conduction. Here is where this book dabbles in fantasy, or as others are calling Magical Realism.

Conduction draws its strength from memory and emotions and allows the earth to fold, “like fabric”. When in contact with water, this power can be used to transport himself and others great distances. This metaphor is used to highlight how our memories and experiences stay with us, shape us and provide a map for our future.

The story follows Hiram’s life, it begins during his youth being of the Tasked on the plantation (Coates mentions the word slavery only a few times but refers to it as the Task in his book). It follows his daring attempt to escape and explores the network of the underground railroad including hero Harriett Tubman, all while bringing to light the strength and power of family and memories and the scar tissue that builds around these broken connections.

“They knew our names and they knew our parents. But they did not know us, because not knowing was essential to their power. To sell a child right from under his mother, you must know that mother only in the thinnest way possible. To strip a man down, condemn him to be beaten, flayed alive, then anointed with saltwater, you cannot feel him the way you feel your own. You cannot see yourself in him, lest your hand be stayed, and your hand must never be stayed, because the moment it is, the Tasked will see that you see them, and thus see yourself. In that moment of profound understanding, you are all done, because you cannot rule as is needed.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates is arguably the most important essayist of our generation. One could say that it was his writing alone that changed our nation’s conversation on race and reparations. This is his first work of fiction. You can see his journalistic roots in the amount of research executed to write such a story. But his writing is also poetry. He can craft one hell of a sentence. This is not a quick read, this is a consuming each sentence causes deep admiration and reflection, carve out plenty of time sort of read.

I’ve read several books about slavery, fiction and non-fiction and nothing comes close to putting a human face on it as this book. Most books focus on the physical horrors but Coates’ focus of the separation of family just slices right to the heart of the trauma that is passed down from generation to generation.

It made me think of these commercials I keep seeing for those ancestry-type DNA kits to trace your lineage. My mom has loved finding out about her Scottish heritage and fleshing out the roots of her family tree. I thought of how that must feel for Black America, to search for the origins of family. To think that any search will come across numerous dead ends, blank pages, question marks and atrocious horror. The separation of husband and wife, mother and son, sister and brother for money was such commonplace. A wound like that could never fully be healed, but can only be passed down through each branch. It is unexpected reflections like this that permeate this book.

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – The Water Dancer is beautifully written, full of lyrical prose which paint descriptions that leaves readers full to the brim with emotion. It draws you in and consumes you. It is a story of slavery, remembrance, family, courage, history and survival. It is a slow burning story that will need lots of time to fully soak in, reflect and appreciate. Make sure you are in the right frame of mind to read this heavy material, but I urge you to do so! This book had a profound effect on me!