The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Penguin Random House, 2019.
When a fateful carriage accident sends nineteen-year-old Hiram and his half-brother and enslaver Maynard crashing into the ice-cold river Goose, Hiram’s stolen mother dances back into his life.
Hiram remembers everything—except his mother. Hiram’s father is a man of “Quality” as owner of Lockless, a once prosperous Virginia tobacco plantation. Young Hiram dreams of inheriting his family’s estate and reviving the overworked, dying land. But Hiram’s mother, a blank face in his memory, is a Tasked woman—enslaved, violated, and then sold by Hiram’s father.
Half black, half white but fully enslaved, a motherless Hiram struggles with his place in the world as his aspirations are continually crushed. Brimming with intelligence, a photographic memory, and enthusiasm for life, twelve-year-old Hiram is tasked as the personal slave for his crude, dull-witted half-brother, Maynard, the “legitimate” heir to Lockless. The two boys are opposites in every way, sharing only a father in the most-limited sense. Where Hiram is bright, Maynard is dim. Where Hiram is black, Maynard is white. Where Hiram is enslaved, Maynard is enslaver.
According to their father, Hiram’s only purpose in life is to function as Maynard’s unseen right-hand, to use his natural intelligence to further elevate his unaccomplished, yet privileged brother. However, when a fateful carriage accident sends nineteen-year-old Hiram and Maynard crashing into the ice-cold, swift-running river Goose, Hiram’s stolen mother dances back into his life.
With the shock of the cold water, in floods the spectral image of Hiram’s mother, Rose. Dancing passionately with a water jug on her head yet not spilling a drop, this reemergence of Rose during Hiram’s near-death experience opens a door of magical capabilities within Hiram. Whereas many enslaved people physically escaped oppression by crossing rivers, the chains around Hiram’s deep-buried memories of his mother are unlocked by the river current.
These once suppressed memories of Rose are the key to Hiram’s newfound ability of “Conduction,” an ability that can transport his body safely through space. In this way, by fully acknowledging his mother’s existence and admitting to himself that she was in his life before she was sold, Hiram is able to connect to an ancestral supernatural power. This teleporting ability and his desire to live outside the constraints of slavery and racism, hurtles Hiram down a path that will change thousands of lives for the better as he becomes an agent of the Underground Railroad.
With its use of magical realism to reinterpret narratives of the enslaved, The Water Dancer evokes classics such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and, more recently, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. As memories are the key to Hiram’s inner power, The Water Dancer reminds readers of the importance of acknowledging our past in order to improve our future.
Samantha Hunter is a Library Assistant I in the Mebane Children’s department of the Alamance County Public Libraries. Contact her at email@example.com.