Warning: This book review contains references to sexual assault.
Within the last two years, there’s been a call to reexamine how the United States views its racist past, slavery in particular. Many authors – mainly black – have published these kinds of narratives, especially within the last 50 years. They show up as both nonfiction and fiction, but as I’ve said on this website, the latter helps readers to better understand the feelings of the people involved in that point in history. With that being said, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates stands out from these kinds of stories through certain elements.
The Water Dancer is about a slave named Hiram Walker. When he was a boy, his mother was sold away, and he was robbed of all memory of her. However, he was gifted with a mysterious power. That same gift saves his life years later when he almost drowns in a river. This brush with death empowers him to perform a daring scheme: to run away from the only home he’s ever known. Hiram goes on an unexpected journey that takes him far and wide. 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.
Every slave narrative includes some form of suffering to show how horrible it was to be a slave. A lesser book would try to have whippings and beatings up the wazoo, but that’s not much of the case here. Sure, the physical suffering is acknowledged, yet Coates focuses more on the emotional and mental kind. For example, Hiram grew up on a Virginia plantation called Lockless as the black son of the plantation’s owner. He spends a good chunk of the novel looking back on how he wanted to be loved by the only parent he had left. However, that could never happen simply because of the color of his skin. As a child, he was reminded that the people who raised him on the plantation like Thena were more like family than his biological one even when he spent days learning alongside his white half-brother Maynard.
Another thing that this book does well is that it focuses on the actions of its characters. In other words, it’s less poor Hiram and more what he’s going to do and how he’s going to accomplish it. For instance, when he is caught by Ryland’s Hounds – the slave catchers, he spends three weeks in their jail and goes through some horrendously awful things, including the white men touching him in places where they shouldn’t have. Hiram tries to keep his mind at blank while that kind of torture occurs, a similar tactic he used when his mother was taken away.
Coates uses terms like “Tasked” and “Quality” to further support the emphasis on the action. The “tasked” are the slaves since they are tasked to do things on the plantation, and the “Quality” are the masters in various capacities because they are able to live a quality life because of their skin color.
The supporting characters – both black and white – are pretty compelling. Sophia – Hiram’s love interest – is the special property of Nathanial Walker – Hiram’s uncle. When living on Lockless, Hiram has to take her to Nathanial’s plantation on the weekends, yet Sophia wants to be free as much as he wants to, especially after it’s revealed that Nathanial had raped her. At one point, she makes it very clear her yearning for her own agency when telling Hiram “But what you must get, is that for me to be yours, I must never be yours.”
Another supporting character that stood out was Corrine Quinn. On the surface, she is a refined white Southern lady who wears makeup and attends social gatherings like any other white person at that time would. But deep down, she’s an abolitionist who works for the Virginia Underground. Her plantation is a station for those who are a part of that organization. She’s highly intelligent, and contributes significantly. At the same time, she wants control and rules with zeal, much like other “Quality.” Hiram points this out to her at the end of the novel. Additionally, she and the other high-ranking members (both black and white) of the Virginia Underground don’t fully think through the obstacles that they put Hiram through. He calls them out on this as well.
In addition, unlike most historical fiction novels, I found it interesting that the book refuses to specify the time in which the events occurred. For a while I was trying to listen for clues, but besides one supporting character being a well-known name in the Underground and the mentionings of women wearing hoop skirts, I didn’t find anything that would clearly specify which years the story took place. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn’t care. The point was that there was slavery, and some slaves were trying to escape, and Coates probably wanted to find a creative way that they could do that.
Now, readers will want me to talk about the magic realism part of the book, and so I will. This is the aspect that obviously stands out the most. It involves water as a conductor (ha, get it!) and memory to propel one to great distances. There’s a poignant part of the story, where Moses (who also goes by the name Harriet) demonstrates this power by conducting herself, her family, and Hiram to one of the Underground stations. It turns out that Hiram possesses that ability, but for him to travel far, he has to dive into (pun totally intended) his deep memories. This lays out the main conflict in the story. He’s great at remembering things like other people’s stories, yet he cannot remember his mother, and his most profound ones involve her.
If I have to complain about something in this novel, it’s that I couldn’t really connect to it. I know I’ve said that before, but I sincerely wanted to enjoy this novel. The more I like something, the more I remember it. And yet for some reason, I wasn’t able to do that a whole lot. Even after reading it over seven months ago, I had to remind myself of certain elements in the story. One reason was because as much as Coates’s writing is intelligent and detailed, he can go off into tangents at times, and it lost me at those points. Another reason was a personal one. I wasn’t really able to relate because my life experiences as a white woman are not as simliar as those of a mixed race man in slavery. Again, I like it; I wanted to enjoy it more.
However, what kept me going with the novel was the audiobook narration done by Joe Morton. Morton has appeared in movies like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Speed. He even won an Emmy for his role as Eli Pope – Olivia’s father – on Scandal. He is no stranger to audiobooks as he has recorded over 20 of them, including that of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. His narration on this novel is pretty good. He makes clear distinctions among various black and white characters. Also, when he has to sing as Hiram, he gives it his all like his life depends on it, and it helps that he has a beautiful singing voice. In fact, he gives all of his characters life and a wide range of emotions, especially when Thena explains why she can’t go to her now freed daughter.
Overall, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a well-written book that stands out among its slave-centric stories. It utilizes the power of memory in a pretty creative way, and it contains compelling characters. Most importantly, it focuses more on their actions as opposed to their suffering. I would recommend this to those who like reading about slavery, fantasy, and books by Coates as well as to those who want to read more novels by authors of color. While I did like it, I’m sure there are more people who will connect to it more than I did, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
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