BOOK REVIEW: The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Historical Fantasy Novel, 2019).

A winner of the National Book Award for one of his highly respected and best-selling non-fiction books on the black experience in American life, Coates takes a magic-informed look at slavery and the Underground Railroad in this, his fiction debut.

It’s a fine and successful effort, focused on Hiram Walker.

‘Hi’ is a young slave, fathered by the white Virginia tobacco plantation owner who sold his mother to parts unknown when Hiram was but a child. Hiram has what we would call a photographic memory, yet has unconsciously blocked out the traumatic details of his mother being torn away from him. He’s basically been raised by Thena, a wise and tough, aging slave who has seen all of her own family sold ‘down Natchez-way,’ the locals’ way of saying the Deep South, where, in contrast to the worn-out soil of Virginia, agriculture is still flourishing and more slave labor is in demand.

In a twisted fashion, Hi and Thena are lucky to be summoned from the regular slave quarters to Mr. Walker’s mansion. Thena does laundry, while Hi is tasked with looking after his own half-brother, the reckless and self-destructive Maynard. The author does an excellent job portraying the perverse human interactions and contradictory emotions that develop between people locked into a fundamentally inhumane, rigidly defined class-and-slavery culture.

While the basic situation is handled with realism, there is also a magical/fantasy element from the start of the novel that will grow and finally become fully fleshed out. Hi is a forthright and alert narrator who keeps the reader interested on what will happen next.

After numerous experiences, most often but not always tinged with tragedy, what happens is that his quest to win freedom for himself and the girl he is infatuated with leads Hi to more-or-less stumbles upon the undercover leaders of the Virginia branch of the much-whispered-about Underground Railroad. They turn out to be quite different than rumor and the romantic images Hi has conjured.

Hi later joins a very different (but equally determined) contingent of the Underground operating out of Philadelphia. As a result, he finally meets the legendary woman nicknamed ‘Moses.’

In our time there has been a great deal of recent attention paid to the real Harriet Tubman, including a feature film about her and a novelized account of her part in a large slave-freeing raid during the Civil War. (I haven’t seen the former, but fully recommend the latter.)

In Coates’s book, Tubman’s status as the Railroad’s most successful ‘conductor’ takes on a new and magical sense. She, like Hiram, has inherited a mystical power she calls ‘conduction.’ Apparently having some basic in native African magic, it allows one so gifted with the ability to teleport from place to place. It requires a focus on one’s own, most traumatic memories and the results are exhausting. But Tubman has mastered it enough to save a great many people, including many of her relatives, from the part of Maryland she escaped from.

For Hi to achieve similar success, thereby freeing those he loves, he must access and accept the greatest and most hidden pain he has been faced with: The loss of his mother.

How he achieves this, his emotional growth and maturation along the way, and the fateful decisions he makes in the end all bring the book to satisfying conclusion.

Highly recommended, indeed!

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