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The Water Dancer


The Water Dancer

Hiram Walker was born a slave in Virginia, back when the red dirt had not been exhausted, when tobacco flourished and the plantations were rich and fully staffed with the Tasked. His father, Howell Walker, was Quality, the master of the plantation. His mother was Rose, one of the Tasked, and her mother, Santi Bess, was stolen away from Africa. Young Hiram is gifted with an extraordinary memory --- he only has to hear a story once and can recall it verbatim. The only person he can’t remember in totality is his mother, because his father sold her further down South when he was just a boy. Of her, he remembers only her dancing with an earthen jar on her head --- water dancing.

When the novel opens, Hiram is driving his ne’er-do-well half-brother, Maynard, home from the races in a chaise, on a bridge over the River Goose: “Legions of the lost, brought across that baleful bridge, legions embodied in my dancing mother.” The chaise ends up in the river. Maynard drowns, but Hiram lives: “And then he was gone. I would like to say that I mourned right then or took some manner of note. But I did not. I was headed to my ending. He was headed to his.”

"THE WATER DANCER, Oprah’s latest Book Club selection, is a gripping read and an invaluable tale for anyone wanting to confront our shameful past --- and that should be everyone."

After this dramatic opening, Hiram relates how his position on the plantation straddled two worlds. His father, having noted his quiet intelligence, brought him up to the house and let him study with Maynard’s tutor, then tasked him to look after his wayward son. Hiram confesses that he has run before, and still wants to run: “All my life I had wanted to get out. I was unoriginal in this --- all the Tasked felt the same.” After Maynard’s death, this desire becomes overwhelming. A young woman named Sophia has caught his eye, and he convinces her to flee with him: “I do not claim to have loved Sophia then, though I thought I did. I was young and love to me was a fuse that was lit, not a garden that was grown.” Hiram knows a free black man in town named Georgie, who is reputed to be part of the Underground, and convinces him to help them.

While this attempt ends in betrayal, Hiram eventually escapes to Philadelphia, with help from an unexpected quarter --- a lady of Quality who is also a secret agent of the Underground. Here, among others who were formerly Tasked, others who are working to bring people out of slavery, he finds his true calling, recognizing that for him, it’s not enough to free only himself and his friends. He will work for the cause his entire life. And this work will take him back down south, back to his original home, transformed.

Many recent novels and movies have shined a light on the extreme physical brutality imposed on slaves. THE WATER DANCER doesn’t flinch from that topic, but focuses more on the emotional chaos brought about by the separation of family members, all at the whim of a white master who needs money to keep a failing plantation afloat. Hiram’s insights, gained through struggle and having a foot in both worlds, are priceless. In response to a friend who laments, “We can’t ever have nothing pure,” Hiram responds, “But having been down, and having seen my share of those who are up, I tell you, Robert Ross, I would live down here among my losses, among the muck and mess of it, before I would ever live among those who are in their own kind of muck, but are so blinded by it they fancy it pure. Ain’t no pure, Robert. Ain’t no clean.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates won the 2015 National Book Award for BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, an autobiography framed as a letter to his son. With this, his first novel, he adds to his literary reputation as an articulate, passionate voice for African Americans. THE WATER DANCER, Oprah’s latest Book Club selection, is a gripping read and an invaluable tale for anyone wanting to confront our shameful past --- and that should be everyone.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on September 26, 2019

The Water Dancer
by Ta-Nehisi Coates