I first found Ta-Nehisi Coates when my friend recommended The Beautiful Struggle to me. I found it very moving and have since read every book Coates has written. I’m also using The Water Dancer for Cannonball Bingo. It is filling the “Repeat” square. I am repeating “Uncannon” since Ta-Nehisi Coates is not an old, white man.
In a story about slavery, Coates uses the words “Tasked” and “Quality” instead of slave and master. Hiram Walker is one of the Tasked. His life is relatively comfortable compared to some of the Tasked because his father is the master of Lockless–the Virginia tobacco plantation where he lives. He is put in charge of taking care of his half-brother, Maynard–a spoiled, stupid man and heir to the plantation. But there are bigger problems. The ground in that entire area has been over-farmed and productivity has decreased significantly. Tasked are being sold West to Natchez, Mississippi, tearing apart families for money as the plantations fall apart.
Hiram’s mother was sold when he was a child, and he can’t remember anything about her. But he’s experienced a couple of strange happenings with a blue light where he ends up in a different place. We see Hiram grow up on the plantation, yearn for escape and experience capture. Hiram eventually manages a kind of freedom but devotes himself to the work of freeing others.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with The Water Dancer (2019) since it was Coates’s first published book of fiction. I finished it with some mixed feelings. There was some beautiful writing and some really great characters. Coates did an amazing job with the psychological toll of slavery, and it’s interesting to see Hiram’s changing perspective as he grows older. When he’s young, Hiram wants his father’s love and attention, but when he grows older he realizes that there really aren’t any options for him. Hiram has shut down his feelings so much to survive that he finds it difficult to open up when he finds freedom and true friends. In addition, the dynamics between Hiram, his father, and his half-brother, Maynard were complex, hypocritical, and infuriating.
I also really liked the portrayal of the characters of Thena and Sophia. Their relationships with Hiram felt intense and real, but they also had their own struggles and needs. Finally, there were moments when Coates’ quiet depictions showed the inhumanity of slavery in powerful ways that felt original.
On the other hand, I did not enjoy the magical realism elements of this novel. It was hard to get through the first chapter because I could not understand what was happening and it did not feel grounded in reality. For me, the light and conduction did not add anything to the novel. My favorite parts of the novel were the people and their relationships. It also felt random and unnecessary to put Harriet Tubman in the middle of the magical element of this narrative.
In addition, I had a hard time understanding Corrine and her role in this book. The entire section after Hiram is jailed after his escape attempt was confusing. I thought Corrine needed more backstory to be believable as a militant abolitionist. I also had a hard time believing that she could turn her entire plantation into a hidden military post without the slightest rumor. No one in society had happened upon strange happenings at her place? There was no one who let the secret slip? Did she really need to put Hiram through the nightly hunting? She felt like an ominous, shadowy character that doesn’t really make sense. I also wondered why Hiram was never blamed for driving the horse and carriage into the river in the first place.
I really tried to wrap my head around how the magic of conduction in the narrative could make this book more emotional and powerful. The ability to use conduction is somehow tied to water, family connection, and the stories of ancestors. A recurrent theme throughout the book is the constant breakup of families by the Quality–thus taking away the only connection the Tasked has left. So only a couple of people were able to retain the conduction and bring more people to freedom. I’m not sure if this was Coates’s intention, but it is a powerful idea. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work for me. Although I was very impressed by many parts of this book, I would have preferred it without the magical realism.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.