Every plantation is a house of spies and intrigue, engineered to hide a fundamental reality: that it is built on slavery and built by the enslaved, its true geniuses and laborers stashed away in basements and fields, sleeping under beds and entering drawing rooms from passageways hidden behind sliding walls, their faces masks of compliance, their hearts beating with betrayal and insurrection. But against whom?
Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage—and lost his mother and all memory of her when he was a child—but he is also gifted with a mysterious power. Hiram almost drowns when he crashes a carriage into a river, but is saved from the depths by a force he doesn’t understand, a blue light that lifts him up and lands him a mile away. This strange brush with death forces a new urgency on Hiram’s private rebellion. Spurred on by his improvised plantation family, Thena, his chosen mother, a woman of few words and many secrets, and Sophia, a young woman fighting her own war even as she and Hiram fall in love, he becomes determined to escape the only home he’s ever known.
So begins an unexpected journey into the covert war on slavery 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 utopic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, all Hiram wants is to return to the Walker Plantation to free the family he left behind—but to do so, he must first master his magical gift and reconstruct the story of his greatest loss.
Have you ever been deep into the South? I have. It is hell, worse than the stories say. Endless toil. Endless degradation.
Anyone familiar with Coates will know what to expect from The Water Dancer. His writing is as complex as the topics he covers, and there’s a real reverence for the historical experiences of these characters. While the narrative does not shy away from the physical atrocities committed, it focuses more on the emotional costs of slavery.
They knew our names and they knew our parents. But they did not know us, because not knowing was essential to their power. To sell a child right from under his mother, you must know that mother only in the thinnest way possible. To strip a man down, condemn him to be beaten, flayed alive, then anointed with salt water, you cannot feel him the way you feel your own. You cannot see yourself in him, lest your hand be stayed, and your hand must never be stayed, because the moment it is, the Tasked will see that you see them, and thus see yourself. In that moment of profound understanding, you are all done, because you cannot rule as is needed.
Hiram’s experiences in the enslaved South juxtaposed with his trip to the free North shows the range of the Black experience in the United States before the Civil War. While Hiram is treated better than most enslaved people due to his lineage, it’s not until he’s in the North that he truly understands the extent of the impact of slavery. Finally, he sees these people who look just like him, and they’re free to choose who to love and where to live and work. Only then does he fully shed his naivety and commit to learning to harness his talents for good.
Watching that little girl encouraged in her pursuits, rewarded in whatever genius she had—and we all had some—I saw all that had been taken from me, and all that was so regularly taken from the millions of colored children bred to the Task.
The Water Dancer requires patience – this is not a short or easy story. But the reader is rewarded with beautiful writing and a creative interpretation of the Underground Railroad with a magical realism twist.
She was trying to tell me, trying to warn me of what was coming. But my gift was memory, not wisdom.