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September 23, 2019

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates ~ a Review

by MK French

Hiram Walker was born into slavery, even though his father was the Virginia plantation owner. His mother was sold away and he continued to live on the property, his impressive memory being a trait that others want to maximize. He continues to live the life of the Tasked, until nearly drowning in a river. A mysterious power seems to have rescued him from death, and he is eventually caught up in the Underground and helping to free others from slavery. It's a difficult life, and Hiram wants to save those he cares about as well.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

September 2019; One World; 978-0399590597
audio, ebook, print (416 pages); magical realism
From the opening page, this story is as lyrically beautiful as it is brutal. This is a story of slavery, after all, even as the people of Virginia try to pretty up the terms: the Quality are the rich and propertied white folk, the Tasked are the slaves, and the Low are the poor whites that take out the frustrations of their social status on whatever slaves they can. The language really draws me in, adding to the color and rhythms of plantation life, and the subtle horrors of slavery are dealt with matter of factly: families are regularly broken up and sold off to enrich the Quality's coffers to make ends meet when tobacco crops don't yield as much as before, slaves are often beaten for no reason at all, people are treated in a dehumanized way simply because of the color of their skin, and in fact are not seen as people at all. Slaves are little better than functional furniture, but this also means that the Quality are effectively unable to care for themselves in any useful kind of way. It's a sick symbiosis that can't be maintained.

Hiram's power to transport himself in space is a heaping dash of magic added to this realistic portrait of the South and becomes a way for him to transport himself and then others. Aside from this skill, he's a very believable main character. He wants a life of his own, the ability to have a family and home that we take for granted. It was incredibly brave to return to the South and to the plantation of his birth, even if he felt that it was a necessary thing to do. The way he relates to other people and their struggles is both natural and inspiring. As much as he has his own feelings of anger and rage, he respects others' feelings as valid, and he respects their choices even when they don't dovetail with his. That is another strength that he has which truly gives him a dignity that is missing with so many other people involved in the slave trade.

While the ending isn't what I thought it would be, it fits as well. Hiram is far more aware of the impact he can have by the end of the novel, not just with Conduction but with the guidance he can give others. His growth is amazing to work through with him, and I feel that I have grown along with him. This is such a powerful novel to have read, and I feel very privileged indeed to have read it.

Buy The Water Dancer at Amazon

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband and three young children. 

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