The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer is a richly descriptive and detailed picture of the
horrors of slavery, the deliberate practice of breaking up families and loving
relationships, and the psychological trauma this inflicts. At the core of this deeply
emotional novel is the innately human desire for freedom, family, and love—as,
through the art of fiction, it tells the very non-fiction story of the heroic ends the
enslaved had to go to in order to connect with and make lives with their loved ones.
The story’s main character is Hiram, the black son of Howell Walker, a white
plantation owner in Virginia. Hiram’s mother is sold by his father at the tender age of
just nine. Hiram is gifted with a photographic memory (though, despite this gift, he
has a hard time accessing memories of his mother). Amazingly, though, a second gift
arises the night Hiram’s white brother drowns—he is transported out of the water, and
his life is saved through a newfound power he calls “conduction” or the ability to move
both himself and others across impossible distances.


The novel then follows Hiram’s daring escape, his involvement with the Underground
Railroad, and his desire not just to find freedom for himself, but to rescue the loved
ones he left behind, including his maternal figure and a young woman he is in love
with.


This is such a powerful novel depicting the life of slaves on a tobacco plantation in
Virginia—highlighting throughout the gut-wrenching separation of family and the
emotional trauma such a horror leaves behind. This novel is a story of both slavery’s
shameful injustices and the horrific treatment of human beings, but also of the
amazing guts and guile of the heroes in the Underground Railroad transporting people
to freedom in the 1860’s South. It is at once a tender, heartbreaking, deeply original,
and brilliantly written odyssey tale.

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