I read a Novel of Oprah’s book club called “The Water Dancer” which is written by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a journalist and American author. The foundation of this novel is a lyrical beautifully shared story of the history of slavery, beautifully written, and draws the reader into a story of slavery, of resistance, and of survival. Do you want to read an addictive odyssey? Then this The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is perfect for you!
Review of The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“The Water Dancer” is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read about the lives of slaves in Virginia. The story is told in a whisper, not a shout, written like a memoir, Hiram Walker, the protagonist, recounts his life as a Tasked and member of the Underground Railroad. Hiram is the enslaved son of the master, Howell Walker on Lockless, a tobacco plantation in Virginia. This novel, fantastical at times but always emotionally torturous, reveals the ugliness of slavery through the theft of hope and personal control. The cast of engaging characters, some intrigue, some thrills, and yes some horror, but not written horrifically.
Ta-Nehisi Coates takes us on an emotional ride through slavery in the antebellum south with all its horrors, trials and indignities, to northern freedom in Philadelphia and beyond, back to a different kind of servitude in the south, all with the help of spiritual magic. It is the age-old story of resistance, resilience, and survival. I appreciate his use of historical references and it’s easy to see that he has a deep understanding of African American history.
Coates refers to those born into slavery as “the tasked” which makes their very existence to be a life of burden. White landowners are referred to as “quality” which makes their moral corruption rather ironic. The Virginia of old, rich tobacco plantations have disappeared to be replaced with worn-out soil and rock hard souls. As the quality attempt to maintain their sheen of grandeur and gentility, the tasked are expendable and sold Natchez way, referring to the sale of human beings to the deep South, the coffin.
Hiram Walker was born into slavery, He is the product of a union between a member of the Quality and Tasked, even though his father was the Virginia plantation owner. His mother was sold away and he continued to live on the property, his impressive memory being a trait that others want to maximize. He is a very intelligent young man who continues to live the life of the Tasked, until nearly drowning in a river. Hiram is blessed with the power of conduction, a mysterious power seems to have rescued him from death, and he is eventually caught up in the Underground and helping to free others from slavery. It’s a difficult life, and Hiram wants to save those he cares about as well.
There are multiple topics woven inside this novel about slavery, the breaking up of families as family members were sold off, the effect on those taken, and those left behind. The trauma of these losses affecting memories, affecting lives. Painful memories that Ta-Nehisi Coates shares with tender compassion over time, while not sugar-coating any of the evilness of the actions, and allowing these characters, particularly Hiram, Hi, to not only remember but move beyond the pain associated with those memories. Love is another topic, both familial and romantic, and the precariousness of love for the Tasked.
The real power of this novel lies in its expression of what happens to the human soul when that soul has no power of self. Coates extends the horror of the tasked to other groups such as Native Americans and women where they too are restricted from determining their own fates. The gift that Coates gives to the reader is his language. The illustrative metaphors that help a 21st-century reader try to get some semblance of the life of a 19th-century slave. If you have read any of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work before, you know how warm, engaging, honest, and beautiful his writing style is. And this style translates perfectly into fiction.
Ultimately, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an immensely powerful read that is touched by elements of magical realism. Though the story is fiction, it gives the reader a vast appreciation of the lives of those on both sides of slavery.