Summary and book reviews of The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water Dancer

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates X
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
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  • Published:
    Sep 2019, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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About this Book

Book Summary

In his boldly imagined first novel, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the National Book Award–winning author of Between the World and Me, brings home the most intimate evil of enslavement: the cleaving and separation of families.

Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her—but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he's ever known.

So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia's proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the deep South to dangerously utopic movements in the North. Even as he's enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram's resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.

This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. Written by one of today's most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.

Excerpt
The Water Dancer

And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life, and though there were other bridges spanning the river Goose, they would have bound her and brought her across this one, because this was the bridge that fed into the turnpike that twisted its way through the green hills and down the valley before bending in one direction, and that direction was south.

I had always avoided that bridge, for it was stained with the remembrance of the mothers, uncles, and cousins gone Natchez-way. But knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the "...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Coates skillfully explores the many horrors of slavery. Through his journeys, Hiram comes in contact with countless former slaves who share their heartbreaking stories in great detail. These voices widen the scope, and it's in these testimonials where this novel truly comes alive...continued

Full Review (781 words).

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(Reviewed by Dean Muscat).

Media Reviews

NPR
For me, the most moving part of The Water Dancer was not Hiram's escape or the escape of the people he loves, but the possibility it offers of an alternate history. In epigraphs between chapters, Coates quotes poems and writings about people who were captured and drowned in the middle passage. We read lines from Robert Hayden: "Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter / to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under." Coates also quotes from a contemporary eyewitness: "The negroes, in the meantime, who had gotten off, continued dancing among the waves, yelling with all their might, what seemed to me a song of triumph."

Vox
Look at the way the clauses pile on top of each other, sending the sentence spiralling in on itself as it goes, burrowing in toward some unspeakable loss. Look at the way it links the broken innocence of Hiram’s childhood to the youth of the land itself, before plantation farming robbed the soil of its richness. It’s a stunning opening, and as soon as I read it, I was absolutely convinced that Coates was going to prove himself to be as brilliant a novelist as he is an essayist. He’s not. That’s okay!

New York Times
It is also true, however, that this is a first novel, and reflects some of the inconsistencies of first novels. ... But the novel’s few weaknesses are offset by its enormous strengths.

Washington Post
Coates’s fantastical elements are deeply integral to his novel, a way of representing something larger and more profound than the confines of realism could contain...That archetypal hero feels strangely natural here because Coates has effectively taken back this tarnished history and clarified the position of blacks in the fight against slavery. They are not passive victims waiting to be saved by enlightened whites. They are warriors, strategists and spies plotting their escape and struggling to remember everything.

Kirkus Reviews
Coates' narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel's Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency. An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
In prose that sings and imagination that soars, Coates further cements himself as one of this generation's most important writers, tackling one of America's oldest and darkest periods with grace and inventiveness. This is bold, dazzling, and not to be missed.

Booklist (starred review)
Coates brings his considerable talent for racial and social analysis to his debut novel...Beautifully written, this is a deeply and soulfully imagined look at slavery and human aspirations.

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Beyond the Book

The Great Dismal Swamp Maroons

Slave Hunt in the Great Dismal Swamp painting by Thomas Moran 1862A central storyline in Ta-Nehisi Coates' novel The Water Dancer focuses on slaves attempting to flee the South to the free states of the North. Many runaways had to endure long journeys on foot and unimaginable dangers along the way, including the high-risk possibility of being re-captured and returned to their owners to be severely punished in an effort to deter others from following suit.

Despite the hazards, there were successful escapes. Some slaves managed to find their way North. Others found refuge in the marshlands of the Great Dismal Swamp, which borders Virginia and North Carolina. This fugitive community of Great Dismal Swamp maroons is said to have numbered in the thousands and lasted until the end of the Civil War in the ...

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