Book Review: The Water Dancer

Towards the back end of 2019, this book was blowing up the internet on its merit, but also because it was chosen as the 1st book to be part of Oprah’s relaunched Book Club, so of course you knew it would be on my reading list as well as many others. Fast forward a few months later and I finally got around to reading it and let me tell you- the hype is real, I sped through this 400-pager in less than 2 weeks; something I haven’t done with a book in a very long time. So, this week on the blog, we’re reviewing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, read along and see what we thought.

Synopsis:

The book follows and is written from the perspective of bi-racial slave Hiram Walker (Hi), a little boy with a remarkable photographic memory, who lives and works on the plantation Lockless in Virginia. When his mother gets sold away, he loses all memory of her, but a near death experience leaves him with special powers of conduction. Hi’s father, Howell Walker, the plantation owner soon, sends for him to work in the big house and become his half brother, Maynard Walker’s manservant. As the plantation begins to decline and realizing his eventual fate as a “Tasked” as opposed to a “Quality”, (the term used to describe the slaves vs the rich, wealthy slave owners), Hi decides to escape with his love Sophia. His life takes a major turn in ways he never anticipated, forced to “grow” and experience how the outer world views him, he is catapulted into the world of none other than the Underground Railway.

Break it Down:

With the voice of the book being from Hi’s perspective, you begin to realize what a series of emotions he is feeling not only at any given time but his general personality which is shaped by the loss of his mother, his lack of memories of her, his feeling of being alone and knowing that his father is essentially his owner/master. He becomes a voyeur in his life and because of his extraordinary memory he begins to compile the stories he hears of his fellow slaves and their past. This gives him a sort of connection to his long lost mother and aunt or any family he is desperately seeking. He eventually installs himself in Thena’s house, a reclusive woman whom the other slaves fear and respect, knowing she would understand the depth of the loss he feels as she experienced it herself with her own children. Their bond is strong, quiet and full of a tough unspoken love. She becomes a de-facto mother to Hi and protects him, but the depth of her feelings for him doesn’t come to light until Hi returns to the plantation about a year after his attempted escape. Now a full member of the Underground he return with a plan to get Sophia and Thena out of slavery, but when Thena isn’t as thrilled to see him, he is hurt. In an argument, Thena finally reveals her devastation at finding out he was caught trying to escape, she thought the worst and actually believed she was cursed since no one was safe around her and everyone avoided her. This struck a cord, because as a reader you are pushing for Hi’s safety, you sort of forget about the people he left behind, it was a tough pill to swallow. It wasn’t until Thena finally opens up and tells him how his escape affected her and how it brought back the feelings of loss she experienced when she was separated so violently from her own children.

Georgie’s betrayal to Hiram was something as a reader I didn’t see coming at all, I don’t know if it’s because the whole time I was so focused on his escape to freedom, I didn’t even consider that a close family friend would betray him. Oddly, though I didn’t hate Georgie for his deceit as much as I thought I would or as much as Hiram did. Now I understand that Georgie’s betrayal is what leads to some of Hi’s worst traumas, he gets thrown in the worst jail, beaten, abused and felt up and degraded in such an inhumane manner that he begins to see himself as less than human. Hi and other captured slaves who attempted to run away get put in a disgusting sort of game where Rylands (whom Hiram refers to as low-Whites) would take a few slaves to the forest, dangle freedom in front of them send them running and then hunt, beat and attack any of the ones they catch. Of course this sort of sick entertainment, because either men do not succeed in escaping and will only be caught, chained and ultimately sold onward to another plantation of Natchez (which they refer to as Hell). Hi gets smart and uses his gift of memory to his advantage and begins to memorize his surroundings and gets stronger and smarter with time, eventually getting “saved” by Hawkins who turns into a member of The Underground.

I will fully admit that it took me some time to realize just who the group of people who saved Hi and not only once but twice- before he realized just who they were and just how deeply organized, smart and covert their work was/is. Hi’s half brother was due to marry Corrine Quinn, the daughter of a rich massive estate named Brycetown, but once Maynard died suddenly in a crash which nearly took Hi’s life- this puts a kink in Corrine’s plan as the main characters of the Virginia branch of the Underground. You later find out that Brycetown looks like a “plantation” on the outside, but it is in fact a guise, it is really is a stop on the Underground Railway. As the story progresses, you realize just how cunning, driven and intelligent Corrine Quinn really is. On the outside and to the upper crusts of White Virginia, she is a well off lady in waiting, but she is really gathering intel with the rich and using that information to further the abolitionist movement. Her only downfall, if I were to call it that, is the fact that she is so relentless in her mission and doesn’t really stop to think about the names/faces and stories of the slaves she saved- they are almost like a commodity to her. And though her work and mission is a noble one, when there are casualties throughout she doesn’t allow herself to stop and think about the life lost, she merely says they are part and parcel of the mission. It really surprised me how little affected she seemed when Mr. Fields was killed; he was first introduced to Hi as Maynard’s tutor and eventually Hi’s introduction into the Railway. It was him who first spotted Hi’s intelligence and memory, this is probably what helped peek Corinne’s interest in Hi. But as a reader, I found her to be somewhat cold and so driven she kind of came off like she had a God complex in some way. When Mr Fields, who’s real name is Micajah Bland was murdered she merely said that he gave his life for the cause and he knew this was part of the job of committing your life to the Underground. Though I agree with her, death is part of the “job” as such, I still expected Micajah’s death to have affected her in some way- she just didn’t show it at all. She also seemed like she wanted Hi to be more in awe of her, but he didn’t see the depth of how deeply committed she was to the cause, but he does acknowledge it towards the end of the book.

Let me fully “fan girl” a little bit and tell you how shook I was while reading this book and realizing the character they kept referring to as Moses, was in fact Harriet Tubman. I don’t know how I never learnt that she was called this due to the fact that she was said to literally part the water like Moses. It was as if I was meeting her myself, I was so humbled. Her connection to Hi was very interesting, because of how in awe he was of her and how nonchalant she was. She is the key to Hi unlocking his ability to conduct and all his life he didn’t realize this was in fact his gift. I do know this book is a work of fiction, but I still enjoyed the references of Harriet and it brought her more to life than anything I have ever read about her previously, the rational part of my mind is fully aware she clearly didn’t smuggle slaves out of thin air, but the fact that she was never caught and never lost anyone on her missions, does add a layer of mysticism to her name and I can totally see why.

Negatives?:

I’ll be honest the whole time I simply wanted Hiram to escape and find “happiness” in whatever form that would come for him, I didn’t want him to go back South once he received his freedom because to me- that meant his death. But, the pull of his “something bigger” was a lot for him and he didn’t find meaning in his life until he took on the task of being a fully integrated member of the Underground and I guess on some small note, it disappointed me a bit, but someone has to do the work, right? So, really there isn’t a negative for me at all.

Would I recommend the book?:

This book is necessary, it discusses trauma, it discusses about the “business” of slavery and the ownership of the Black body, it talks about the White abolitionist, but who ultimately are not as invested in the equality of Blacks. 100% I would recommend this read, it is beyond beautifully written, the scene is painted around the reader so well it’s almost magical.

The RnR Rating:

4 out of 5 stars.

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