An alternative cover edition for this ISBN can be found here and here.
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 idealistic 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.
This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Between the World and Me, a finalist for the National Book Award. A MacArthur "Genius Grant" fellow, Coates has received the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story "The Case for Reparations." He lives in New York with his wife and son.
I’m giving those stars in shame, hands shaking as I push them to the key board and clicked: 3 shiny stars. Then I started to run away, dropping down my phone as if someone gave me a daily chore to clean up the entire house and I’m escaping from secret big hole at my wall hid behind Rita Hayworth poster. (That’s my shawshanking glory run, my dear friends)
When I started this book and captivated by those lyrical, emotional, poetic, amazing words created its own magic, I thought I was falling in love with this book (I loved it so much so as a treat I shared my wine with it! Yes, I’m clumsy and poured it on my kindle, but my intentions were sincere as always) Most of the first parts, I felt the words waltzing on my mind like a fresh breeze rejuvenating my soul. I felt breathless, excited and shaken at the same time. And take a break to look at this beautiful cover. There are so many reasons to fall in love with this book desperately.
I loved the characterization of Hiram, slave and the master with photographic memory, lost his mother at 9 (he has hard times to bring memories out about her, maybe he is blocking them because of emotional stress he has to deal with). As his brother dies, he achieves to conduct himself across the water and his magical abilities start to show off.
But what went wrong caused me to fall from love and change my opinions about the book:
In my opinion those parts embellished with beautiful magical realism didn’t fit the harsh realistic and shameful history. Those words seemed like patches or the wrong pieces of puzzle could never fit to complete the missing pieces’ place.
All the psychical, mental suffering, brutality of slavery give us cold showers and shake us to the core, freeze your blood. But when the magical elements took control of the story-telling, I shook my head “no” because I found it a little clunky and I felt like the story started to repeat itself over and over again. So pages started to seem like longer and the pace is slower as I started to lose my interest in the story.
And instead of Hiram, other characters were undeveloped and seemed like they’ve been created haphazardly without thinking about their backgrounds, attributes, motives. They weren’t realistic enough to resonate.
I think the author’s profession is focused on writing non-fictions. So this book was new challenge and milestone for the author’s carrier. I also watched his interviews and his kind, genuine words and amazing nature, opinions about our modern world deeply affected me. That’s why when I gave three stars of this book, I felt like a scumbag traitor because at the beginning my expectations were so high and I was so close to say that was my favorite fiction of this year. Well, unfortunately it didn’t work for me. But it gave me purpose to read “Between the world and me” and other nonfiction books of the author. (My tbr list is the highest place on the earth. You can see the whole universe if you ever reach to the top!!!!)
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an amazing non-fiction writer. His Between the World and Me is an extraordinary work that should be required reading. He has this way of making a non-fiction piece flow like poetry and you would think an author who writes non-fiction like Coates does - so poetic and compelling - would transition well to fiction.
But this book never quite felt like a novel to me, even with the magical realism elements. It is slow, introspective, ruminative… I am stuck feeling like Coates should have cut 100 pages and wrote this as another non-fiction piece about the psychology of slavery and slave owners. There are fascinating things being said, and beautifully, but they are bogged down by many less interesting moments.
Coates opens with a long sentence, spanning an entire paragraph. Though there is a story here - of Hiram Walker, who was endowed with a mysterious power when his mother was sold and now longs to escape from slavery - it gets lost beneath all the poeticising of superfluous details. Coates moves the story along a few steps and then spends pages and pages lost in a thought before finally returning to it.
Some books get away with being slow and heavily-detailed, others get away with not having a strong narrative, but it is quite difficult to write a fully engaging book that does both these things. I really do feel like I read a book full of thought-provoking ideas about slave/owner psychology that would have been so much better as a non-fiction opinion piece. As a novel, the lack of focus and absence of fleshed-out characters (aside from Hiram) meant that it didn't quite work for me.
I would recommend this for fiction readers who care more about the way language is used than for the characters or the tale being told.
4+stars At its core, this novel is a story of slavery, the shameful injustice, horrific treatment of human beings, of the amazing guts and guile of the people in the Underground transporting people to freedom, in the south of the 1860’s. This is such a powerful story depicting the life of slaves on a tobacco plantation in Virginia, highlighting throughout the gut wrenching separation of children from their mothers, separation of fathers and children, husbands and wives. The writing is beautiful in so many places that I found myself rereading passages.
It’s a complex story infused with magical realism. It’s a creatively written story, but the magical realism wasn’t a problem for me given the beautiful prose when I found myself in these instances of “Conduction”. I do admit that I was a little confused at times about the Underground as portrayed here. Hiram Walker, called Hi, a slave, son of the plantation owner has the gift of memory, the ability to recall everything he sees and hears and reads when he learns to read, except one thing. He can’t remember his mother, sold by his father when Hi was nine years old. Hi has another gift, one he struggles to understand until he finds a place as an agent on the Underground. On Hi’s journey we meet a large cast of characters, some are courageous, some will touch your heart and there were some that I just couldn’t understand, but the journey is an amazing one. This isn’t a book for everyone because the magical realism may not be for you, but it’s an important and beautifully written story of slavery unlike anything I’ve read. It will hit you in the gut as it should and the characters will touch your heart with its depiction of family, of love, and the desire to be free.
I received an advanced copy of this book from Random House/One World through NetGalley.
A breathtakingly imaginative, lyrical and well researched antebellum historical fiction debut novel, infused with magical realism from Ta-Nehisi Coates. Follow the life of the extraordinary enslaved Hiram Walker, the black son of Howell Walker, plantation owner in Virginia, whose mother is sold by his father at the tender age of 9, gifted with the ability to remember everything, except memories of his mother, and later the power of conduction. A new vocabulary is created for slaves and whites, the fight for freedom leads to the Underground Railway with its hopes and dreams of a better future. This is a richly descriptive and detailed picture of the horrors of slavery, the deliberate practice of breaking up families and loving relationships and the psychological trauma this inflicts. Underpinning these inhuman wicked acts is the drive to crush and extinguish any embers of resistance to the status quo. Coates gives us profoundly traumatic, heartbreaking and moving storytelling that haunts, a necessary retelling of American history, the repercussions of which continue to bedevil contemporary America, doing it with humanity and compassion. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Penguin UK for an ARC.
Obviously I'm the worst at coming back to review those pesky RTC placeholders, but I felt the need to say a few words regarding this one. Even though I can't remember any specific quotes this far removed, I will always remember how moving the narrative is, how engaging the writing was, and how necessary, important, and timely this story will continue to be. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up!
If you've read his non fiction than you know what a powerfully this author writes. I was so curious about his first first foray into fiction. Would it be as good, as powerful? For me the answer is yes.
This is a vividly portrayed and imaginative slave narrative. It takes place mostly in Virginia at a plantation called Lockless. Hiram is our narrator, he remembers little of his mother and he is the black son of the plantation owner. He also possesses a remarkable memory, and another unusual talent, which I will not explain in this review. The life and brutality of the slave life is powerfully portrayed, the daily losses, the death of self.
The slaves are called the tasked, and they yearn for connection, for freedom. Freedom takes an unusual turn here, and a little magical realism or substitution is employed. The characters, so many, even some of the quality are involved in the intense struggle for freedom. He also doesn't forget to mention all the disenfranchised, those yearning for a freedom not willing not given to them.
A truly remarkable first novel, wonderful characters, steady pacing and s little something different that sets it apart.
I’m in the minority here so read other people’s reviews. Up to around 35% I just loved this book.. then it went off into another direction and moved so very slow.. I kept going till 50% and could not bring myself to keep going. I’m giving it three stars because of the part that I loved!
Thank you to Netgalley and One World for the opportunity to read this!
I can't remember the last time I was this happy to close a book on its last page. Well, not literally, since I read this on my Kindle. But tapping one's finger at the last page to move on to what Amazon recommends next does not depict the same image as holding a hardcover book in one's hand, closing it with a satisfying clap!, and exhaling a sigh of relief. I might have merely tapped my finger on the screen, but believe me. I groaned a HUGE sigh of relief.
This was so bloody boring!!!!!!
I know, I know, almost everyone else loved it, and believe me, I wanted to love it too. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a genius with words, composing lyrical descriptions that make the reader feel so alive with all the emotions his words evoke. I don't know why exactly The Water Dancer didn't do that for me. Partly it was due to the protagonist Hiram appearing one-dimensional to me. I could not relate to him or see him as an actual person. He felt flat and so did the other characters. Only a couple of times did I feel engaged with the story. For most of it, I couldn't wait to reach the end.
Normally nowadays when I am this uninterested in the characters and unengaged with the plot, I DNF a book. That's why it's been so long since I couldn't wait to come to the last page and metaphorically slam the book shut. I assumed I would eventually get drawn into this and thus I stuck it out. This is Mr. Coates debut in fiction and perhaps I'll enjoy his future work more... or perhaps I just prefer his nonfiction writing. I don't know. Don't take my word for it because plenty others have seen genius in this book. Maybe it's there and is just eluding me.
“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” —Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s debut novel, The Water Dancer, a young enslaved man named Hiram Walker gets involved in the Underground Railroad. His personal resistance manifests in Conduction, an incipient mystical power which—if only Hiram could master it—would enable him to spirit people away from their bondage.
For me, this premise immediately calls to mind Morrison’s Song of Solomon, with its legends of (literal) human flights to freedom. ‘Conduction’ however is earthbound, moored to memories. The latent possibility of its magic simmers just out of reach for most of this novel.
Coates explores the psychology of enslavement with thoughtful and detailed nuance. We observe the frequently paradoxical feelings, motives and actions of traumatised people; riven families and their consequent grief; the emotional confusion of a slaveowner to whom Hiram is both son and property; dubiously fanatical white abolitionists ('their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave'). These characters abound with deeply human complications, and Coates seems mainly interested in uncovering their layers through a kind of painstaking emotional archaeology.
This is a slow, ruminative novel, and the prose—being heavily reliant on expository dialogue—is a little too stolid to compensate for a lack of narrative thrust. I also found it hard to get a fix on Hiram as a character, despite the novel being entirely his first person perspective. It’s probable that I picked this up at exactly the wrong time for me, but I struggled at times to stick with it.
With its striking resonances, I found a lot to admire in The Water Dancer on an intellectual level, but less immersion in the story than I had hoped. 3.5 stars.
This was a difficult novel for me to read and to review. I admit the story of Hiram Walker's life was told in an interesting way, and the writing was beautiful, however, I was unable to relate to Hiram's story as much as I would have liked to. This is the second time over the last year that I have read a novel which had my full reading attention, but which left me indifferent. If this is the case, I know I will not think about it nor will I return to it in future.
This book grabbed me from its first pages and never let me go. Hiram Walker is the son of a plantation owner. But he’s the black son, born to a slave and thus a slave himself. His mother was sold “Natchez way” when he was 9. After a near death experience as a young man, he plots to escape. Despite having a photographic memory, Hiram has lost his memories of his mother. It’s a literary device that really captures the loss of a family member to slavery .
This book is so beautifully written it takes your breath away in much the same way that the near drowning takes Hiram’s. It truly captures the horrors of slavery.
I loved his use of words. Not slave and owner. But Tasked and Quality. Even the whites are designated as Quality or Low.
“Bored whites were barbarian whites. While they played at aristocrats, we were their well-appointed and stoic attendants. But when they tired of dignity, the bottom fell out. New games were anointed and we were but the pieces on the board. It was terrifying. There was no limit to what they might do at this end of the tether, nor what my father would allow them to do.”
As can be expected, Hi is infuriated. He’s the smart one while is white half brother is a dullard, gambling away what’s left of the family fortune. Coates spells out for us the incredible suffering of being a slave. And he’s not talking physical suffering but the mental suffering of never being able to express yourself or allow yourself natural wants like a loving relationship.
Coates uses magical realism as a plot device. It becomes a larger and larger part of the story as the book goes on. I struggled with this, more so when a well known historical character is given a certain mythical power. Similar to The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, one has to be willing to suspend belief.
My other quibble is that he doesn’t set us firmly in time or place. We know that Virginia is in decline, the soil exhausted from years of tobacco. But I couldn’t tell how far before the Civil War we were. Or where in Virginia we were as there is no Goose River, Elm County or Brycetown. This is a pet peeve of mine and just a few sentences could have cleared things up.
This is not a fast read. It needs to be pondered. I do feel it started much stronger than it finished. But it’s a very meaningful read and I would recommend it.
My thanks to netgalley and Random House for an advance copy of this book
2021 review: It's late 19th century Virginia, in America, and slave (The Tasked) Hiram has to somehow micro-manage his wanton waste of a White half brother Maynard to protect him from himself! Maynard's family (The Quality) own a fading tobacco farm who's wealth has been built on their slave labour. The ruling classes (The Quality) depend om the lower class whites (The Low) to help maintain the status quo, which includes chasing down their property... runaway slaves. This is a slave's story as a Frederick Douglas quote used in the book states "The story of the master never wanted for narrators".
Famous, and so-called controversial, journalist and comic-book writer Coates cast his lot into book fiction, with this slave saga set towards the end of the Virginia tobacco gravy train and in my opinion, he tried to do too much. The scene setting is extremely good, even more so because it feels like a truly accurate perception of this reality from the slave's point of view. It's a clever read in that it justly puts across the historical fact, that not only did slavery build America's wealth, but the White masters depended on slavery for pretty much everything at the time; he also has no qualms on putting across how much the lower class whites used their resulting status and hold over the Black slaves to give themselves some meaning, some sense of power. Most of all what this book does though, is give voices to the enslaved, as they still tried to eke out their lives under these atrocious conditions, still tried to find kinship, family, love etc. and more importantly that they are/were fully aware (as they are human beings) of the despicable behaviour, earth shattering hypocrisy and levels of evilness of the slavers and the slave society. Where I think Coates tries to do much is to make this literary - by giving us a mash-up of pastiches, mixing and mashing nods to the styles of Jane Austen (social commentary), Mark Twain (darkly comedic sarcasm) and others, and not having his own clear idea of how this story should be told? Or maybe I'm just being a git, and am annoyed and Coates' nods to European literature - the same European culture that was built on slavery and piracy.
Coates expertly interweaves his take with historical fact and/or characters based on real people; his portrayal of the Underground Railway is captivating, yet also limited, as we have to see it through Hiram's eyes. The main problem I have with this book, is personal, I can't stand magical-realism (other than Haruki Murakami), as it often feels to me like a literary device to add mystery, or even worse to fill the gaps that imagination can't. In this book I get what Coates is trying to do; providing the reader with the idea that the history and mythologies of the Black American community did not start and end with slavery. All in all, I found this a great read for historical scene setting and the voices of the enslaved, but also I found this a debut where a well-known creator maybe tried to do too much? 7.5 out of 12. Off the back of this though, I will assuredly be reading his comic books!
The darkness of slavery and all of its shackles to the brightness of conduction and all of its light. An unusual story. Exquisite writing. An Unforgettable storyline of slavery and the power of memories and families. Through the dark times, as we are currently experiencing, may we be granted the gift of conduction and hope. 4⭐️
From its magical book cover art to its plot steeped in tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s novel feels like a surrendering of life and soul, as if the pages are infused with the breath of its creator, the words dancing into the human shape of those who paid the highest price. ‘The Water Dancer’ is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read about slavery. Coates nails down the suffering of slavery when he focuses on the emotions of Hiram Walker, who is separated from his Mama Rose when she is taken to be sold. Hiram is nine years old. Then Coates’s laser light focus shines on the old woman known as Thena, whose five young children are sent Natchez way; she becomes the meanest, hardest shell of a woman until one day that shell is pricked by the lost gaze of a boy who no longer has a mother. How much can a body take? That question was ask daily of those who Tasked for the Quality.
Hiram’s white father, Howell Walker is the master of the plantation, Lockless. While riding through the Street, his young son calls attention to himself by mimicking his elders in a call and response song, and the elder Walker flips Hiram a coin. Hiram thinks the coin is a symbol of his way out of slave life. Indeed, it’s not long before he’s called to the big house to take lessons along with his brother, Maynard, and eventually, to serve as Maynard’s protector. It’s quite a job because Maynard has been spoiled by desultory living. His sole ambition is to please himself. Thena reminds Hiram, “They are not your family.” It’s something Hiram would have done well to heed, but he’s just a boy, a boy longing for the presence and love of the one adult parent he has left in his life. While Hiram is fast and smart, Maynard is slow and dull. Hiram thinks his father is ashamed to have such a fine intelligence show up in his bastard black son while his white son struggles with comprehension and schoolwork. Hiram has a tremendous gift of memorization. He can recreate a drawing from memory, remember and keep straight a whole slew of stories and who told them and repeat them back word for word. He can remember each card in a deck of cards turned over and all the carved symbols on a box of discs. He performed parlor tricks to entertain his father’s guests and that is how his gift of photographic memory came to light.
Hiram has another gift; this is where the author introduces an element of magical realism. During the span of the book, Hiram will be trying to learn how to bring his gift forward and how to utilize it. His special gift is tied to memory although he has a huge block in his mind about the time his mother was sold. When Coates writes about Hiram’s gifts and his memories, he evokes a lightning storm of emotions in the protagonist, who sees fleeting glimpses of a lady dancer, with a jug of water perched on her head, and hears the sounds of the people making music for the dancers.
Most power structures use violence as a way to balance things. The powerless person gets and uses a gun. The powerless person grows muscles and beats someone up. The powerless person enlists the power of the Mob. In an interview with Evan Narcisse, Coates says he wanted to do something different and he attributes some of his thinking about how power is used to Isabel Wilkerson’s book ‘The Warmth of Other Suns,’ which helped him to realize the positive side of running as resistance. So Coates reaches down to Mythology and creates something greater than violence, something that transcends violence. But we have to always remember, we can never forget the things that have been done, the tragedies and sufferings that have been inflicted so that we never do them again. We need books like Coates because we do forget. One of the greatest impacts of the book for me was seeing how white masters ran down the plantation system. How they degraded the soil until it wouldn't grow anything, and on top of the farcical masks of society balls, thoroughbred racehorses and their trappings of wealth, they undermined themselves. When the plantations no longer brought in money, they began to sell their slaves and move westward, looking for new lands and people to pillage. One of Coates’s characters says, “Someday they gonna run out of land, and I don’t know what they’ll do then.” That’s where we are now, close to losing most of our good, arable land and poisoning our atmosphere and our oceans.
Hats off to Coates for his complex female characters! Thena, the meanest woman on the Street is the one the young Hiram feels can understand him best. Sophia is subject to the whims of Nathaniel Walker, Hiram’s uncle and no Black man can interfere with that, upon pain of death. She becomes Hiram’s love interest but makes it known that she wishes to belong to no man. The owner of her own plantation after the death of an extremely cruel husband, Corrine Quinn takes her place among the Quality as a genteel Southern lady, but her story is worth discovering on your own because she is much more than she seems. Coates writes as though he knows something about the emotional life of women. The specter of Mama Rose inhabits the threads of the story, tying knots in the rope of family and memories. The family holds place of honor and the sorrows of separation are felt in the marrow of the bones.
When Coates visited Calida Garcia Rawles’s art studio in 2017, he knew he wanted her to do the cover art for his book. Rawles had many images of Black people submerged in water on display in her studio. I had never read Coates’s work before but knew I wanted to read it as soon as I could because of the many positive reviews on Goodreads, but also because of this very powerful art on the cover. The picture of a Black man in a dead man float position, his arms reaching out, encircling, is compelling, and on the back cover, a single hand raised, a signal for help or his last-ditch effort to escape impending death. Water is a driving symbol for Rawles's artwork and in this novel, a symbol of transcendence, and ultimately, of hope.
With beautiful words and phrases, the senses come alive with sights and sounds and smells. The heartbreak and horrors of families ripped asunder are palpable, as well. I love the image of the water dance, earthenware jars filled with water on the head, while the dancer high-steps, knees held high, dipping and bending, without spilling a drop.
I typically dig magical realism, but it did not work for me with this particular tale. I found myself slogging through, wanting it to be over. The writing is much better than three stars would indicate, but my enjoyment of it merits no more.
I enjoyed this on the whole though it didn't quite live up to the hype for me. It's very well written but was a little too top heavy on the schmaltz for me. Essentially it's one of those narratives extolling the power of love that commercial cinema is so fond of. I also felt it sprung a puncture half way through after a very promising start. Much of the urgency of the early part suddenly evaporated and the action began to take the form of second-hand stories happening elsewhere while our narrator kept repeating himself and his emotional anguish. The novel makes a mystery of the narrator's inability or refusal to remember his mother. And this becomes the pivot of the plot of the second half and ultimately a rather lame mystery. There's some magical realism in the form of what's known as Conduction - a privileged gift a very few individuals possess, including our narrator, which enables them to morph over great distances. I found the explanation of how this is achieved, essentially by channelling the power of memory, a bit trite.
It's a somewhat benign take on slavery. There's none of the backbreaking labour or sadistic cruelty one associates with these plantations. The characters often seem at liberty to do as they please. This meant there wasn't as much urgency or dramatic tension as there often is in slavery narratives. There also wasn't a hateful baddie, which again usually adds dramatic tension in persecution narratives. At the end of the day I enjoyed Coates' writing which was consistently excellent, more than the story itself.
Thanks to Netgalley and Random House Publishing Group for a digital galley in exchange for an honest review
If you've never experienced the beautiful magic of Ta-Nehisi Coates' writing, it's time to add him to your TBR. In his first steps into fiction, Coates brings us the tale of Hiram(Hi) Walker, a slave on a Virginia plantation in the mid-1800's. With little to no memory of his mother and the property of his white father, the owner of the plantation, Hiram soon finds himself called to the big house to serve his half brother Maynard. As the boys grow, an incident will occur that will show Hiram his true inheritance and set him on a path towards freedom.
I read this one at a fairly slow pace. A choice I made on purpose because of the seriousness of the subject matter. Coates shows the brutality of slavery, the dehumanizing nature in which people were "Tasked" and if they misbehaved or tried to escape were sold and sent "Natchez way."
A novel that I eagerly anticipated and one which I hope many will pick up and join the conversation.
Goodreads review published 02/09/19 Publication Date 24/09/19
A beautifully shared story of the history of slavery, a world built by those purchased or born of those referred to as the Tasked under the watchful eyes of their owners, those of the Quality. While this time and place are difficult to read about, there’s a magical element to this that manages to create an atmosphere both hopeful and lovely, and helps to balance out the overall atmosphere.
”I am here, telling this story, and not from the grave, not yet, but from the here and now, peering back into another time, when we were slaves, and close to the earth, and close to a power that baffled the scholars and flummoxed the Quality, a power, like our music, like our dance, that they cannot grasp, because they cannot remember.” (To hear Ta-Nehisi Coates read this quote: https://video.vanityfair.com/watch/ta... )
There is something about the writing that feels as though every word is so deliberately chosen to perfectly convey the emotions, actions and environments throughout this story, while creating this occasionally magical aura at the same time.
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 a 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.
This has been compared to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, since both have an “experimental” touch to them, but this was a much smoother read, for me. While Coates has written other non-fiction books, this is his debut novel, and I was impressed with how beautifully his passion shined through.
Pub Date: 24 Sep 2019
Many thanks for the ARC provided by Random House Publishing Group - Random House – One World
“... Virginia, where a man would profess his love for you one moment and sell you off the next.” This book tells some of the stories of the Underground Railroad and is based on “The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts” by William Still. The author created the character of the slave Hiram Walker. Hiram was the son of his mother Rose and her master Howell Walker. After Rose was sold, Hiram was taken in by Thena, who hoped that her laundry money would buy her freedom some day. Hiram soon became a house slave and was made to entertain the guests of his father/master with demonstrations of his remarkable memory. Hiram was also assigned to look after his stupid, coarse, older half brother Maynard. Hiram eventually got involved with the Underground Railroad and met the woman called Moses (Harriet Tubman). Hiram learned that he and Moses shared a power known as the Conduction. It took a while for the author to spell out exactly what the Conduction was, and how it might be useful. Apparently it was based on the strange visions reputed to have been experienced by Harriet Tubman following an injury.
This was a powerful and well written book. The author told a compelling story without melodrama, violence or sappy romance, which is certainly not always the case in books about slavery. I am not a fan of magical realism, but there was one brilliant passage as Harriet used the Conduction that was written as call-and-response. The sequence was very effective in the audio book read by Joe Morton. The author writes both fiction and nonfiction very well.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
I started off slow dancing and swaying to the harmonic words to the story and I was loving the depth to the story. And then instead of dancing, I found myself swimming upstream and once again lost in the magical elements to the complexity of the story. It became too much of struggle for this over busy reader and I failed to keep up with the beat of this story.
I had not thought this would be a difficult review to write, but I have sat here for an unconcionable amount of time pondering over where to start. I suppose the starting point is slavery, the insitution that we all recognize as ungodly in every sense of the word. Coates does a remarkable job of tackling the horrors of that condition without seeming to overstep reality. It was easy to see how a person might long and concentrate on escape and at the same time fear not only the consequences of an attempt but also the losses that would come with such a change. Better the devil we know?
Also at play here is the insufferable hand of fate, the caprice of which station a person is born to, which was so stringent in the antebellum south that even the unlanded whites were seen as something only slightly human. Another aspect of the novel that I appreciated was Coates's depiction of the lifestyle as one that was dying of its own indulgences, for most systems collapse from within and this one was no exception. The misuse of the land and its inhabitants were already eating away at the South before the abolitionists even made a dent in the problem. For, even had every slave been treated with respect and concern, there would still have been something grossly evil in stripping a person of choice. Wasn’t God’s finest gift to man meant to be free will?
Finally, there was the theme of betrayal and family. What constitutes a family? And when your own family members have been ripped from you and scattered to the wind, who then fills that void that every human being must seek to fill? One of the saddest stories, among many sad ones here, was of an old man who tried to hang onto what was left of family in perhaps the most questionable way and the consequences to him. The betrayals in this novel are myriad and sometimes horrifying and there are characters who can garner no sympathy and others who do the most horrid of things for what they see as “the right reasons”.
I am not a fan of magical realism, so it will be no surprise that the only weakness I found in this book was its reliance on that element. It was not something objectionable, however, and it was made to fit the storyline in a believable and mystical, rather than a fanciful, way. Mixing in a historical character and then involving her in the magical realism also chaffed, but I suspect it would not bother one out of one hundred readers. None of this had any serious impact on either my enjoyment of the novel or the excellent writing and plot development.
I found myself comparing this book to The Known World. They are both brilliant approaches to perhaps the most difficult subject in American history. They have much in common, and of course, elements that set them distinctly apart. If you read this book and enjoy it, you should not miss The Known World, which I would rate as slightly better. If you have read The Known World, you will know that any book that can endure a comparison and stand is worth the reading.
This was an interesting story about slavery, but with a magical twist. As Colson Whitehead has created a literal (but fictional) train in his Pulitzer-winning The Underground Railroad, here Coates creates a sort of mystical, magical path to freedom called The Conduction. I just found it much less interesting as a story compared to The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Beloved by Toni Morrison.
The book is written in the first person from the perspective of the primary character, Hiram, or "Hi". He describes society as being divided into Quality (slave-owning whites), Tasked (slaves), and Low (poor whites). There are some memorable statements about slavery: Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives. (loc 792) For it is not simply by slavery that you are captured, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes. (loc 1708) Slavery is everyday longing, is being born into a world of forbidden victuals and tantalizing untouchables—the land around you, the clothes you hem, the biscuits you bake. You bury the longing, because you know where it must lead. But now this new longing held out a different future, one where my children, whatever their travails, would never know the auction block. And once I glimpsed that other future, my God, the world was born anew to me. I was freedom-bound, and freedom was as much in my heart as it was in the swamps, so that the hour I spent waiting on our meeting was the most careless I had ever spent. I was gone from Lockless before I had even run. (loc 1848) But the Task does not bargain, does not compromise, it devours. (loc 2129) understood the whole dimensions of this crime, the entirety of the theft, the small moments, the tenderness, the quarrels and corrections, all stolen, so that men such as my father might live as gods. (loc 4749)
Hiram is the son of a Quality and a slave, long since sold away from the plantation, Lockless. The interesting name actually given that the novel revolves around escape and thus there being a missing lock. Hiram lives for most of his childhood in the Warrens, underneath the main house but still separated from the slave quarters. h, the curses my mind constructed for my fool of a father, for this country where men dress sin in pageantry and pomp, in cotillions and crinolines, where they hide its exercise, in the down there, in a basement of the mind, in these slave-stairs, which I now I descended, into the Warrens, into this secret city, which powered an empire so great that none dare speak its true name. (loc 1282)
Hiram finds his way into the Underground movement to rescue slaves, but, as also in Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, this takes on a mystical side which not all readers will be able to connect with, the reviewer included. I suppose that Coates was sort of inspired by The Matrix because the person that shares Hiram's mystical power, Moses, reminded me a lot of the Oracle in that series of movies.
The central tragedy in the book is the death of Hiram's half-brother, Maynard, and how this death impacts the rest of the plantation, eventually collapsing of its own weight without an heir. A few more quotes: We are all divided against ourselves. Sometimes part of us begins to speak for reasons we don’t even understand until years later. The voice that took me away from the Underground was familiar and old in me. (loc 3273) Maynard was crude and this was his greatest crime. In fact, he mirrored so much of the Quality. He simply lacked the guile to hide it. (loc 4805) His world—the world of Virginia—was built on a foundation of lies. To collapse them all right then and there, at his age, might well have killed him. (loc 4915)
So, even if it wasn't my favorite, it was still a decent read. Once again, for narratives of even more power about slavery (which also forgo for the most part (ok, so not in Beloved) the mystical side), see Zora Neal Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison...
The Water Dancer is the story of Hiram, a slave in Virginia with a special power that saves his life one night when he almost drowns in a river. After this experience, he commits to escaping from the only life he’s ever known, one of slavery. Hiram has a near perfect memory and finds his calling as an agent in the Underground, helping slaves transition to freedom in the North.
There is an element of magical realism and while this wasn’t a detraction for me, toward the middle of the story, I found my interest waning. The language felt lengthy at parts. Additionally, I struggled to keep track of the large group of characters Hiram encounters on his journey.
Different than what I expected, The Water Dancer presents an interesting concept. After reading this, I will say I prefer Coates’ nonfiction writing to his fiction. Between The World and Me is a short but powerful book everyone should read, though his writing talent is evident in both instances.
Presented as a slave narrative in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, “The Water Dancer” is rooted in details of pre-Civil War Virginia. But like Colson Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad,” the story’s bracing realism is periodically overcome by the mist of fantasy. The result is a budding superhero discovering the dimensions of his power within the confines of a historical novel that critiques the function of racial oppression.
That sounds like a mess — Spider-Man Takes Antietam! — but Coates isn’t dropping supernatural garnish onto “The Water Dancer” anymore than Toni Morrison sends a ghost whooshing through “Beloved” for cheap thrills. Instead, Coates’s fantastical elements are deeply integral to his novel, a way of representing something larger and more profound than the confines of realism could contain. This week, Oprah picked “The Water Dancer” for her new book club, which will stream on Apple TV+ when it launches Nov. 1.
The story opens with calamity: During a terrible storm on the Lockless plantation, a horse-drawn carriage crashes off a bridge into an icy river. The driver, a slave named Hiram, miraculously survives. But the passenger, Hiram’s white half-brother and the heir apparent of the plantation, drowns. For their father, this is just the latest disaster. Poorly managed tobacco farming has destroyed the soil on the Lockless plantation. Every year, more slaves must be sold down South to service rising debts. To the master, this is a troubling inconvenience. To the enslaved families ripped apart, it’s a death sentence.
Hiram narrates this story from a distance of many years, but he describes everything with. . . .
This is an absolutely beautiful book! The writing itself is stunning and a lot of work is put into absolutely every sentence. It deals with such heavy and heartbreaking topics and at times it is very hard to read, but also at times still feels optimistic that there are good things in this world worth fighting for such as love, family, connections, familiarity and home.
This book took me a while to read as it is very deep and character driven. This is a slow story that you are meant to take your time with and really absorb and understand. The story line is good and moves along at a good pace but the things that makes this book different from other books on this topic is first the focus on people's thoughts and inner workings. How they felt, how they thought, what made them make the choices that they did. The deep personal thoughts really make this book very powerful as you can relate to the characters on an intimate level, it goes deeper than just the everyday lives and experiences of a slave. Second, it goes deeper and more broad into the politics, the freeing of slaves and the north versus the south; how it all commingled. Previous books I have read usually just focus on one particular plantation or town and the atrocities that happened in everyday life.
There is a strong focus on the psychological effects of our experiences. Morality choices such as acting out of revenge and anger. Do they deserve it if they have seriously wronged you? Have you crossed a line? How every decision you make can snowball and unknowingly affect so many lives. Really separating what you think is best for somebody compared to what they want for themselves. How much your understanding of life, relationships and feelings change as you mature and experience more of life. It leaves you with a lot of things to think about and really ponder on.
Of all the horrible things that were done to slaves, I must say that the thought of taking a mother's children away from her, really hits me hard. I had a really hard time reading that. I cannot even imagine having my children taken from me. Even writing those words my eyes are tearing up.
Not sure about the magical realism parts of the book. I go back and forth on whether I liked that aspect or not. I feel like it is used as a portrayal of how our memories and experiences hold onto us and how important they are to help guide us in our future, but I personally felt like it took away from the story a bit. At times it confused me and I had to stop and get out of the story to think about it and I think it also slightly makes the true history of how hard people had to fight to get free seem a bit too easy.
It is very obvious that a lot of work and research has gone into this book. The level of detail and understanding in his writing is amazing. A book I will absolutely not soon forget and definitely recommend. This will be a top seller, I am sure.
Thank you so much to Netgalley and Random House Publishing Group for my ARC.
I am a descendant of enslaved black Americans; someone whose mother disappeared, for a time, when I was young; and, as a memoirist, I’m a writer who remembers for a living. For these reasons, I was in tears by the ninth page of The Water Dancer. What kept me turning the page was the joy I found in witnessing a story I thought I knew, told in a way I’d never seen it told before.
The novel follows Hi, a young man in the throes of slavery in Virginia, who yearns to be free and, increasingly, is willing to pay the cost to do so. When his escape leads him from the plantation to the headquarters of an underground resistance, Hi finds himself on a quest to remember his past—not simply as an elegy, but as a way of conjuring a magical ability that will help him reach his destination.
In heartbreaking and beautiful language, Coates takes us beyond the brass tacks of an escape-from-slavery narrative. Not only do we witness Hi’s journey toward freedom, we also witness his journey to reclaim an inner life that has been plundered by slavery, that Peculiar(ly evil) Institution. As one of Hi’s early caretakers warns, “And though it hurt sometime, you cannot forget … You cannot forget.” With The Water Dancer, Coates helps us to remember. This is no easy read, but like so much of Coates’s work, it is vital. I am grateful.
I've been reading this book for 10 days, but it feels more like 10 years. It seemed the more I read, the further I had to go. It seemed endless. Not because it wasn't good; it was hauntingly beautiful. Not because of the mysticism of some of the plot; that was explained by the context. And not because it moved slowly; at times the action was at breakneck speed. Even with all of this, I had to force myself back to it day after day, not eager to read, but totally invested when I did.
This book affected me just like Toni Morrison's "Beloved". Some of the scenes were so powerful they have been seared in my brain. Slavery was an evil sickness that cursed not only the slaves and slaveholders, but the land itself. Coates' separation of the classes into "the tasked", "the quality" and "the low" was pure brilliance. As I remarked on another review, if it was this painful for me, an older white woman, to read, what must it have cost the author to write about people who may have been his ancestors?
This book certainly deserves 5 stars for a lot of reasons, but I can't go there from a personal point of view, which is how I rate books. I can tell you this though. I won't be forgetting it anytime soon.