The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates turns the slave narrative on its head. With his first fiction novel, Coates deftly melds together historical fiction with sci-fi fantasy.
The novel follows the life of Hiram who we meet when he nearly drowns in the local river. Hiram is born a slave on a Virginia plantation, the son of the master. A story that’s all too common in history. His father made Hiram help his brother with his studies. Hiram has to hold his tongue and go along even tho this man sold off his mother. Ever since he has no memory of her. But when he was in the river, he caught the wisp of a memory of his mother. Hiram is in a carriage with his white half-brother Maynard. They both fall into the deep water. Hiram tries to save his brother but can’t hold on. Thinking he’s about to die himself, Hiram suddenly is transported back to the plantation. He’s alive because of a magical gift. After this near-death experience, Hiram’s life is turned upside down. With the death of his brother, who will inherit the plantation? His father tries to semi-groom Hiram to help him run things. But of course, the slave owner will never free Hiram and let him run things. When Hiram realizes this, he decides to run away with his crush, Sophia. Alas, things don’t go as planned for either of them.
Hiram goes on a journey to cultivate his teleportation power. The book refers to this as Conduction. This is an ancestral African power. Coates cleverly twists the history of defiant slaves who choose to drown in the ships going to America rather than to be sold. In this world, those slaves don’t die but travel magically back to the African homeland. As one would guess, the agents of the Underground Railroad want Hiram to harness this power for rescues. He would be their secret weapon. We meet a collection of characters through Hiram including one based on Harriet Tubman. Much of the book is about his struggle to find his place in the world. Hiram desperately wants to go home and rescue Sophia. However, he doesn’t want to ruin the good work the Underground has done. The ending was poetic and brings things full circle.
What a beautifully written book about slavery. It has a level of realism with Coates commentary via Hiram on the inhumane business of slavery. I especially liked how the book focused on the depth of pain from mothers separated from their children. What a horrific loss my ancestors dealt with and yet persevered. I would not be here reading and reviewing this book otherwise. Although the book examines history and human nature, it also uses sci-fi elements to help slaves claim their freedom. What a notion to ponder if we had the power to escape slavery through magic? I found this novel more engaging and clever than Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.
If you’re a fan of Ta-Nehisi’s non-fiction writing, this is a treat. I enjoyed the Joe Morton narrated audiobook but had to switch between physical, ebook, and audio to finally finish it. The story is captivating, but there are so many layers to the story. I had to truly focus to finish it. If you go the audiobook route, I recommend speeding up the narration though. While Whitehead’s novel sought to tell the entire history of slavery, Coates hones more into the character rather than story plotting. This is more a character study and musing on the historical time. Pick this up if you’re interested in a unique sci-fi alternate history of the end of slavery.
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