The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehesi Coates, is a marvel, the first full-length work of fiction by the author. The novel follows Hiram Walker, a child born into slavery and the child of the master of a plantation. Hi’s incredible memory sets him apart as a child, bringing him not just to the attention of his father, but also of other elements in the community tied to the Underground Railroad. As he grows, so does his need to escape the life he was born (and forced) into. So begins Hi’s journey North, South, and into the bounds of imagination and magic as Coates re-imagines what the Railroad could be.
One interesting aspect of Coates’ novel is the interweaving narratives of the respective bonded people throughout the book. Hi becomes a conduit not just for their magic, but also for their stories. Through him, we hear testimony of dozens– fathers, sons, mothers, children, all betrayed in one way by the institution of slavery, their masters, and even, sometimes, their own family.
Coates’ novel starts on familiar ground, but diverges greatly as the novel proceeds. As always, Coates’ prose is exacting and precise, unpretentious and unapologetic. His writing of the female characters in the novel is especially well-wrought. The relationships of mother/child are some of the most heartrending themes here.
This book isn’t for the faint of heart, nor is it for the heartless. Instead, Coates weaves magic into history.
You need to read this book.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehesi Coates,
Random House Publishing, Sept. 24, 2019