The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer

A Novel

Book - 2019
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"Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage--and lost his mother and all memory of her when he was a child--but he is also gifted with a mysterious power. Hiram almost drowns when he crashes a carriage into a river, but is saved from the depths by a force he doesn't understand, a blue light that lifts him up and lands him a mile away. This strange brush with death forces a new urgency on Hiram's private rebellion. Spurred on by his improvised plantation family, Thena, his chosen mother, a woman of few words and many secrets, and Sophia, a young woman fighting her own war even as she and Hiram fall in love, he becomes determined to escape the only home he's ever known. So begins an unexpected journey into the covert war on slavery that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia's proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the deep South to dangerously utopic movements in the North. Even as he's enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, all Hiram wants is to return to the Walker Plantation to free the family he left behind--but to do so, he must first master his magical gift and reconstruct the story of his greatest loss. This is a bracingly original vision of the world of slavery, written with the narrative force of a great adventure. Driven by the author's bold imagination and striking ability to bring readers deep into the interior lives of his brilliantly rendered characters, The Water Dancer is the story of America's oldest struggle--the struggle to tell the truth--from one of our most exciting thinkers and beautiful writers"--
Publisher: New York : One World, ©2019.
ISBN: 9780399590597
Characteristics: 403 pages ;,25 cm.

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skdawson
Mar 31, 2020

While the pacing was slow, I felt like it was part of the story that because Hiram remembered so many details in memories that they would need to be described in order to accomplish his point of view effectively. However, the slow pacing is my only negative comment. It is both beautiful and ugly, giving each character depth and showing the horror of slavery. I found the stories contained inside much like water themselves, a constant ebb and flow. Not what I imagined, but a novel I enjoyed nonetheless.

a
AnnieFofa
Mar 26, 2020

I found this a very difficult book to get enthused about reading. The “magical” aspect was a little too unbelievable. If I had not been forced to stay at home these weeks, I probably would not have finished reading it.

l
Linyarai
Feb 27, 2020

I read this for the "Literary Fiction" part of my 2020 reading challenge. I expected to like this, I wish I had liked this, but I really didn't. I usually like historical fiction and fantasy and everything, but this was just really slow and lackluster. The second half was easier to get through than the first half, but I still felt really let down by this book.

e
EmilyEm
Feb 24, 2020

The first novel by brilliant writer Coates explores the powerful influence of memory on a remarkable Hiram Walker, enslaved in Virginia’s tobacco empire and ‘recruited’ by the Underground.

Remarkable cast of characters that explores the tangled webs of relationships among those whom Coates calls the Tasked, Quality and Low. The story of those working the Underground takes on new dimensions in this telling, shedding light on an oft told story. Coates gorgeous prose is on display. What a writer. If anything, like another reviewer commented, the expansive prose slowed the narrative to the point I was losing patience near the end. Otherwise, a can't miss book!

ArapahoeAnnaL Feb 21, 2020

How do you recover your humanity when it is ripped from you? Create magic from love, loyalty, memory, language.

c
clancy_pants
Feb 13, 2020

This is the kind of book that improves upon reflection. I had to read carefully sometimes to understand what was going on, but it was worth it. My favorite part of the book was the evolution of the relationship between Hiram and Sophia. She taught him that a woman doesn't need to settle for possession by any man, whether white or black: "Ain't no freedom for a woman in trading a white man for colored" (111).

m
merritr
Feb 13, 2020

“The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse or strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them. We had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.”

“Bored whites were barbarian whites. While they played at aristocrats, we were their well-appointed and stoic attendants. But when they tired of dignity, the bottom fell out. New games were anointed and we were but pieces on the board. It was terrifying. There was no limit to what they might do at this end of the tether, nor what my father [the white Master of the plantation] would allow them to do.”

This story is set on a Virginia tobacco plantation and on the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s, when “smaller” plantations on the east coast are in the midst of selling off mothers, fathers, and children to plantations to the west and south (“Natchez way”) to realize any profit they can muster from their dwindling investments. Hiram Walker was born to a slave, and his father is none other than the Master of the plantation himself, though this is nowhere near enough to lift Hiram above the status of livestock. He’s an unbelievably smart and capable young man, and Coates develops these traits in ways that, for the reader, aren’t necessarily central to the narrative arc of the book, but storytelling around the genius and intellect of slaves aren’t something pervasive in American literature and I was captivated by those parts.

Akin to how Colson Whitehead makes the Underground Railroad literal in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Coates literalizes the magic of how slaves somehow kept alive their hope and humanity through the hell that was slavery. This magic has a matriarchal flavor to it, and many of the women in this story are as wise, powerful, smart, and resilient as any heroes I can remember.

I already had tears on my white cheeks by the end of Chapter 1, eight pages in. But they weren’t tears shed as a result of thinking of the horrible treatment received by an entire group of humans for dozens of generations. No, it was the magic I referred to above that literally saved the life of Hiram as this beautifully told story begins; the transcendent power of that generational magic that slaves created, developed, maintained, and passed down over the past 350+ years. They are the same type of tears one might fail to preserve when experiencing something of immense and timeless beauty, like listening to a particular piece of music by Alan Silvestri and City of Prague Philharmonic orchestra from the “Castaway” soundtrack, or reading journalist Joe Posnanski’s review of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”, or seeing the ocean for the first time as a 16-year old kid from Kansas City. (Links in comments below.)

I don’t want this review to turn into a dozen pages, so I won’t expound on the different parts of life and humanity and history on which this book encouraged me to reflect and rethink. Coates is one of only a handful of writers, living or dead, whose works I *must* read, maybe because of how he is so powerfully and eloquently able to make readers consider the effects racism and slavery and misogyny on individual human beings’ humanity in ways that we white folks could never understand from the few pages we read about slavery in our middle- and high school textbooks (especially the textbooks in Texas. :) )

I admittedly have an irregularly high bar for recommending a book (I’ll choose my own books, thank you very much), but I highly recommend this one.

5 out of 5 Merritt Badges

k
KatG1983
Feb 03, 2020

A story of slavery and journeys to freedom, beautifully written. I do think it could have been edited for length, parts seem a bit overly extended. Also it's the kind of book you have to pay close attention to while reading.

p
peacebenow
Jan 31, 2020

This book details w/ the atrocities of Slavery in a well told story of a Southern Community and Families. Hiram has exceptional powers and intelligence which evolve for increased influence and understanding. It's rewarding to see Hiram and his colleagues grow and free many "Tasked" people. This book gives hope where I imagine often none existed.

b
BellJuju
Jan 26, 2020

Way too long, not well written. This author has taken a very serious topic and trivialized it with hocus pocus. Do not recommend this book.

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c
clancy_pants
Feb 13, 2020

'Way I see it, ain't no pure and it is we who are blessed, for we know this.'

'Blessed, huh?'

'Blessed, for we do not bear the weight of pretending pure[...]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[...]Ain't no clean.'" (293)

m
merritr
Feb 13, 2020

“Bored whites were barbarian whites. While they played at aristocrats, we were their well-appointed and stoic attendants. But when they tired of dignity, the bottom fell out. New games were anointed and we were but pieces on the board. It was terrifying. There was no limit to what they might do at this end of the tether, nor what my father [the white Master of the plantation] would allow them to do.”

m
merritr
Feb 13, 2020

“The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse or strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them. We had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.”

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