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Review: The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Random House/OneWorld, 2019. 403 pp. $28

Hiram Walker, born a slave in Virginia in some indeterminate year, barely remembers his mother, torn from him and sold west when he was little. Brought up by Thena, a hard woman who has suffered similar losses and who wastes no words in expressing feelings, Hiram thinks he’s lucky but isn’t sure.

That presentiment grows even stronger when Howell Walker, their master and tobacco planter, owns Hiram as his son — sort of. Hiram become servant to his half-brother, Maynard, and receives some education from a tutor. As Hiram’s father relies on him more and more, the young slave fantasizes that he’ll be allowed one day to run the plantation, as if he were white. The other slaves, though proud of his gifts and accomplishments, which include a prodigious memory and eloquent storytelling, warn him to keep his head on straight.

It’s excellent advice but impossible to follow. One night, a drunken Maynard drives his carriage into the river. The white man drowns, and the Black man emerges, though he doesn’t know how, except that strange visions seem to have steered him to safety. That event changes Hiram’s life forever.

Portrait, 1852, of William Wells Brown, who escaped slavery in Missouri in 1834 and became a noted abolitionist author. His novel, Clotel, 1853, was the first published by a Black American (courtesy Project Gutenberg, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

From this complex, multilayered premise emerges a compelling though uneven novel that examines in minute detail the roots and branches of race prejudice. The narrative needs no timetable, save the implied pre-Civil War era, for though the laws have changed greatly, racial attitudes haven’t. As such, The Water Dancer feels almost like an allegory, with a dash of magic thrown in.

Normally, I avoid mixing magic and realism, but Coates provides a brilliant rationale for anything not strictly true. Hiram’s memory and storytelling make him a superb candidate to learn and practice a mysterious power capable of setting him or others free. This potential interests the Underground, a resistance organization pledged to destroy slavery from within. That effort will have its costs.

So there’s much tension from the get-go, and Coates’s prose style reaches lyrical heights. Many passages illustrate Hiram’s state of mind while elucidating a theme, as with this one, in which he discovers the pride in being Black that slavery and subservience have denied him:

I looked over and watched as the other colored men along the fence shouted and laughed with still others working the stables. And watching this silently, as was my way, I marveled at the bonds between us — the way we shortened our words, or spoke, sometimes, with no words at all, the shared memories of corn-shuckings, of hurricanes, of heroes who did not live in books, but in our talk; an entire world of our own, hidden away from them, and to be part of that world, I felt even then, was to be in on a secret, a secret that was in you.

The Water Dancer is a vital, important book, and I urge you to read it, though I have reservations. The first half takes off like a rocket, borne aloft through passion that rises off the pages, a sharp sense of the physical, and that gorgeous prose. But then the narrative seems to go into orbit—a holding pattern, if you will—and the story loses momentum. Events that Hiram believes accidental or from his doing will turn out to have been ordained. Not only does that wear thin with repetition and challenge the narrative’s credibility, you get the impression that Coates is manipulating his characters.

To be fair, I like how memory and bearing witness shape the path to freedom, if not define it altogether; in that way, Hiram’s examination of his past makes total sense. I also like how each revelation resets Hiram’s wishes and strategies for living, which pairs his internal journey with his external one. All good novelists aim for that. Yet at times Hiram’s reflections seem forced, too incremental to matter, even abstract, like tiny essays Coates hides within his narrative, but which stick out anyway. The storytelling in these scenes exacerbates the tendentious, contrived approach, because some unfold with characters narrating to others or lecturing—and I, as reader, feel lectured too.

That said, Coates asks crucial questions. The Underground, though sworn to a single cause, attracts people with different goals, which means Hiram and his colleagues must constantly balance the needs of the movement with those of the slaves they mean to serve. Naturally, circumstances keep changing. Every political and social movement has to weather that difficulty, so this is true to life.

But Coates goes one better, splitting his dilemma into even finer parts, exploring where freedom lies exactly, and what actions lead to it. Does escape from the “coffin” of slavery suffice (an image that appears frequently), or does traveling into free territory accomplish nothing by itself? What about the family that remains behind, the love without which the absence of chains is only partially fulfilling?

The Water Dancer is a profound book whose story rises above the flaws in its execution.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.