“The summoning of a story, the water, and the object that made memory real as brick: that was Conduction. What I might do with such a power was not my immediate concern, so much making it through that day.”
Tales of magical realism and the harsh reality of the Atlantic slave trade becomes intertwined in “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It tells the story of a man trying to recall memories of his long-lost mother and escape enslavement on a dying tobacco plantation in Virginia owned by his white father. Coates’ first novel moves slowly through the overuse of prose but emphasizes the decision of freedom and what it exactly means to the different characters.
Hiram Walker’s mother had been sold off years ago by his white father, Howell Walker, and Hiram wants to remember his mother. Other slaves in the community, called the Tasked, tell him he has this power to conjure the memory of his mother through the water.
The story really starts with Hiram riding over a bridge with his white brother, Maynard, where they fall into the water. Maynard doesn’t survive, and everyone is surprised Hiram survived in the water so long. He returns to his father’s plantation, but eventually decides to run after he’s blamed for Maynard’s death. Hiram runs with the girl he loves, Sophia, but they’re captured.
After weeks of torture, he’s returned to Corinne Quinn, a wealthy white woman who was betrothed to Maynard. It turns out Corinne is a part of the Underground aka the famous Underground Railroad. Hiram joins the effort, always wondering of Sophia’s fate and of the purpose of his powers as he figures out what it means to be really free.
Hiram seeking freedom and expecting everyone Tasked wants his version of freedom, regardless of who’s left behind, is an interesting concept that plays throughout the novel. It focuses on the division of families and how it was a fact of life, and if someone ran away, they would have to create a new life in the North and research where their loved ones had ended up. Not knowing the fate of a loved one haunts Hiram with his mother, an underdeveloped character that keeps getting mentioned yet there’s no sense of who she is. It’s reminiscent of Cora in “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead because Cora’s mother had escaped but never sent for Cora, so there is anguish toward the mother; she’s not present, but the reader feels her impact.
This book made me appreciate Whitehead’s book more because the characters are better developed there. Hiram in Coates’ book tells the story in first-person narrative, but there are personality elements missing; he’s mostly stoic. He’s one of those narrators who falls behind other characters though we follow his actions.
The freedom definition theme saved the book. The magical realism gets muddled until the end where the history of African folklore related to water comes up. Though it’s brought up a lot, the water dancing leading to what you need isn’t believable enough, like the folklore isn’t fitted correctly to this story.
Length-wise, It’s a 400-page book that could’ve been done closer to 300 pages. Slavery in the Americas will always be a fascinating topic because of the legacy of not acknowledging its profound generational impact. The history itself in many cases overshadows a fictional story.