Aching and perceptive, ‘The Water Dancer’ is an essential read

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first foray into novel-writing deftly weaves fantasy and historical fact into a poignant tapestry of the antebellum South.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, One World, 432 pp.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the winner of a long list of awards for his nonfiction books and articles as well as the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, returns with a volume of historical fiction. “The Water Dancer” tells the story of Hiram Walker, a young man who flees bondage in the American South only to return as part of the organized underground efforts to free enslaved people. 

The Underground, the network that recruits him, realizes Hiram is of exceptional value to their work for they know that he has a gift. He has visions. Awash in blue light, Hiram’s visions include the image of a woman dancing on a bridge. She holds on her head a jar that resembles a crown, and she wears a necklace of shells around her neck. 

But what do these visions mean? Hiram knows his gift saved him from drowning and, as he grows and matures, the seemingly mysterious power sustains him during other perilous times. Intuitively, he knows the power is tied to memories. But does he control it or does it control him? 

Hiram also possesses a brilliant memory. Everyone knows this about him. His father, the plantation owner, sometimes calls upon his son to display this gift as a kind of parlor game. The father seems to be proud of his son, which pleases Hiram. But Hiram also knows the man sold his mother, along with other enslaved workers, when he was just 9 years old. 

Yet Hiram has no memories of his mother. This makes no sense to him as he struggles with this profound loss. He did not really forget, of course. As he grows up, Hiram comes to understand that some memories might simply be too powerful to hold, especially memories of pure love.  

As new experiences upend any sense of order in his daily life, Hiram also realizes these random events “expose the ends of our knowledge and how much more lies beyond it.” Not everything can be explained by what we see before us, he understands, though that is what most people accept. Hiram’s ability to look beyond is also a power.

With his exquisite writing, Coates delivers an adventure tale steeped in American history. The book imparts the experiences and motivations of the conductors on the Underground Railroad, and of those who supported their efforts – both in the North and the South. Coates weaves into the story references to the depletion of Virginia’s soil caused by growing tobacco, which led to the demise of many Southern plantations, even as the owners fought desperately to retain their way of life. Hewing close to these historical facts brings an authenticity to the story. 

Coates also dives deep with his depictions of the peoples’ daily experiences, especially the interactions and interdependence between the “Quality” and the “Tasked”; that is, between the plantation owners and the enslaved. He includes accounts of the Low Whites, the ones in cahoots with the Quality, motivated by a sense of power and superiority. 

Through his weaving together of these stories, Coates brings a sense of humanity to the history. His alternative terminology might seem like simple changes in vocabulary, but the effect is to lift the story above the one we read about in our history books, the one we all think we know so well.

As Coates imparts a tale that is richer and fuller than the one gleaned from schoolbooks, he implores the reader to approach it with a fresh eye and an open heart. He lays open the ramifications of this history and its impact on both the Quality and the Tasked, for both were affected by the corrupt system.

He bravely asks how do the children of the Tasked bear the pain when mothers and fathers are sold off, likely never to be seen again. How do they retain their humanity? Where do they find the power?

For Hiram, that power came bathed in blue light, a gift of pure love that guides him through life.

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