Since I know Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing the Black Panther comic for a couple of years, and the blurb I read about this book was that it was about a young man with extraordinary abilities, I thought it would be a more action oriented style of novel. I could not have been more wrong.
Yes, the main character, Hiram Walker, does possess an ability he calls conducting, but it is used very infrequently in the story as he really does not learn how to use it effectively until the end of the novel. Instead, this is one of the most effective and heartbreaking novels on the horrors of slavery I have read since Tone Morrison’s Beloved.
The story takes place in Virginia in the mid 1800s, during a period when the tobacco fields are not nearly as profitable as they had been and the plantation owners are struggling to continue their horrific way of life. They have to contend with both the economic pressures they are facing and the loss of their slaves through the Underground Railroad (& I did appreciate the synergy with calling Hiram’s power conducting & the conductors of the underground railroad; especially since Harriet Tubman shares this power).
Hiram is the son of the owner of the plantation and, at first, seems to have a decent life. His mom was taken from him but he lives with another slave who acts in a very maternal way to him. He enjoys certain privileges due to his parentage and his natural intelligence. This changes fairly early on and he endures horror after horror and degradations that would break almost anyone. But not Hiram, who is able to not only survive these ordeals, but uses them to grow to help not only himself but his people. He becomes a key figure in the underground railroad.
This is an incredibly well written book, but not one that is particularly fun to read, due to the subject matter. Coates pulls no punches about how dehumanizing and horrific slavery was and yet, the way he describes the land, the foods, the clothes, and the land can best be described as lyrical. I do not want you to think that this books is completely dark and depressing, as there are moments of joy, of love and of utter exhilaration, especially when Hiram is able to rescue the woman who raised him from a life of slavery.
This is an amazing book, one of the best new books I have read in some time and I cannot recommend it highly enough.