The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer is a stellar debut novel for Ta-Nehisi Coates. While he has had an illustrious career in journalism, this is his first foray into fiction and he has hit a home-run! Coates’ writing style is stunningly eloquent, creating passages that transport the reader into the images and scenes created by his masterfully selected language. This is a gorgeously written piece of literature!

The story revolves around the life of Hiram Walker, one of the ‘Tasked’ on a plantation in Virginia called Lockless, owned and run by the ‘Quality’ Walker family. Once a thriving operation, the land is dying and the plantation and the ways of the gentry are facing a slow death.  We meet Hiram at a young age after his mother has been sold into bondage. He finds safe haven with a cantankerous woman in the slave village and it is during this time that he realizes that, even unschooled, he has an extremely unusual capacity to remember things. This talent brings him to the attention of the plantation owner, Howell Walker, who also happens to be Hiram’s birth father. Recognizing the tremendous gift that the boy has, Walker Sr brings the boy up to the main house to be educated and to be his white son Maynard’s servant.

This is the beginning of a journey that will take Hiram through oppressive suffering toward a future that will enable him to become a soldier in the underground war between the Quality and the Tasked. He will begin to unearth the memory of his mother, buried deep within him, that will allow his gift of ‘conduction’ to emerge, a gift that will help him to understand that freedom without love and family is bondage in its own way.

The story is based on the real life experiences of William and Peter Still, African-American brothers who were able to purchase their freedom from slavery and went on to become active abolitionists and conductors on the Underground Railroad. Fleeing For Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railway and The Underground Railroad Records are compilations of experiences of  the slaves and conductors who worked on the secret network and reflect the perils, tactics, and emotional struggles faced by the freedom seekers and fighters.

A warning to the reader: the inhumanity depicted in this story is almost beyond belief and yet multitudes of blacks have this savagery imprinted into their DNA through the generations that lived and continue to live in a country still much defined by its roots of slavery. 

— Nancy C.

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