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.
Praise for The Water Dancer:
“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.”
“Coates brings his considerable talent for racial and social analysis to his debut novel, which captures the brutality of slavery and explores the underlying truth that slaveholders could not dehumanize the enslaved without also dehumanizing themselves. Beautifully written, this is a deeply and soulfully imagined look at slavery and human aspirations.”
Hiram tells a tale with many harrowing subplots—and moments of great beauty. . . . Coates is an exceptional prose stylist. . . . [His] depiction of the cruelty inflicted on slaves is unflinching. And with great care and insight, he shows us how Hiram and those he loves find sustenance in shared hopes and memories. . . . Coates is among the finer nonfiction writers of his generation. This potent book about America’s most disgraceful sin establishes him as a first-rate novelist.”
—The San Francisco Chronicle
“[The Water Dancer] feels like a natural bridge . . . and the product of a lot of carefully considered passion, too. Nearly every paragraph is laced through with dense, gorgeously evocative descriptions of a vanished world and steeped in its own vivid vocabulary.”
“In short, we need you, Hiram—not just as Hiram the forger of letters and Hiram the running man, but as one who can return these people, our people, to the freedom given to all.”
A young man through the power of conduction shall find meaning, out of Virginia Elm Country on a journey to the Underground to be trained as an agent in the mountains of Bryceton, great becomings and finding ones purpose awaits Hiram Walker our great main protagonist to lead us with hope and courage.
Hiram who is eloquent, great with words and running too, one who at nine years old his mother was taken, he was sold at eleven and put to work like a man.
With the conduction and the Underground, empowerment and movement forward for a change, justice against injustices that were beaten out and the enslaving of man and women, thus a movement borne with a call to liberty and power through unity, education, exercise, movement, and voice.
A tale to lurk in your soul and bones with a concoction of poetic mediations and accumulative sentences with a melody of words capturing what was, had been, and to become, what is, memories of a world mentioned as “ephemera, shadows and screams.”
These words pondering on things, matters, a human condition, bondage of many kinds with wonder amazement and longings, with that great pull of memory in motion, with love requited and unrequited, hearts against all the terribleness, the stark realities and histories.
Words so well put together demanding re-read, these testaments with great importance on women, female characters with their great doings in the world, a work constructed that can compare and have a place next to the works and voice of Toni Morrison.
The cast of male characters:
The vast cast of female characters:
“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 “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.”
“No, only I saw her from the driver’s seat of the chaise, and she was just as they’d described her, just as they’d said she’d been in the olden days when she would leap into a circle of all my people—Aunt Emma, Young P, Honas, and Uncle John—and they would clap, pound their chests, and slap their knees, urging her on in double time, and she would stomp the dirt floor hard, as if crushing a crawling thing under her heel, and bend at the hips and bow, as though serving, then twist and wind her bent knees in union with her hands, the earthen jar still on her head. My mother was the best dancer at Lockless, that is what they told me, and I remembered this because she’d gifted me with none of it, but more I remembered because it was dancing that brought her to the attention of my father, and thus had brought me to be. And more than that, I remembered because I remembered everything—everything, it seemed, except her.”
“Maynard who I hated and loved, who held my chain. Maynard, my brother who was made my master. And I was trying all I could to not hear, searching for distraction—memories of corn-shucking or young games of blind man’s bluff. What I remember is how those distractions never came, but instead there was a sudden silence, erasing not just Maynard’s voice, but all the small sounds of the world around. And now, peering into the pigeonhole of my mind, what I found were remembrances of the lost—men holding strong on watch-night, and women taking their last tour of the apple orchards, spinsters remanding their own gardens to others, old codgers cursing the great house of Lockless. Legions of the lost, brought across that baleful bridge, legions embodied in my dancing mother.”
“I can now say that slavery murdered him, that slavery made a child of him, and now, dropped into a world where slavery held no sway, Maynard was dead the minute he touched water. I had always been his protection.”
“And there was never a need to tell me any story twice, because if you told me that Hank Powers cried when his daughter was born, I remembered, and if you told me that Lucille Simms made a new dress out of her mother’s work clothes for Christmas, I remembered, and if you spoke of that time Johnny Blackwell pulled a knife on his brother, I remembered, and if you told me all the ancestors of Horace Collins, and where in Elm County they were born, I remembered, and if Jane Jackson recited all her generations, her mother, her mother’s mother, and every mother stretching all the way to the edge of the Atlantic, I remembered. So it was natural that I recall, even in the maw of the Goose, even after the bridge fell away and I stared down my own doom, that this was not my first pilgrimage to the blue door.
It had happened before. It had happened when I was nine years old, the day after my mother was taken and sold. I awoke that cold winter morning knowing she was gone as a fact. But I had no pictures, no memory, of any goodbye, indeed no pictures of her at all. Instead I recalled my mother in the secondhand, so that I was sure that she had been taken, in the same way that I was sure that there were lions in Africa, though I had never seen one. I searched for a fully fleshed memory, and found only scraps. Screams. Pleading—someone pleading with me. The strong smell of horses. And in the haze of it all, an image flickering in and out of focus: a long trough of water. I was terrified, not simply because I had lost my mother, but because I was a boy who remembered all his yesterdays in the crispest colors, and textures so rich I could drink them. And there I was, awakening with a start to nothing but ephemera, shadows and screams.”
“I circled the monument once, twice, and then saw something glinting in the morning sun, and before even reaching down, before picking it up, before fingering its edges, before putting it in my pocket, I knew that it was the coin, my token into the Realm—but not the Realm I’d long thought.”
“I am so much older now, old enough to understand how a tangle of events can be unraveled to reveal a singular thread. So as to my freedom, the events stood thus: I knew that I would never advance beyond my blood-bound place at Lockless. And I knew that even if I did, Lockless, whatever its past glories, was falling, as all the great houses of slavery were falling, and when they fell I would not be freed, but would instead be sold or passed off. And I knew by then that my genius would not save me, indeed my genius would only make me a more valuable commodity.”
“The world is moving, moving on without this here country. Time was that Elm County was like the only son, best loved by the Lord. Time was this country was the height of society, and the white people was all regale and splendor, grand balls and gossip. I was there. I was out, very often, on the riverboat with my master. I saw how they made revelry. You are born into these fallen years, but I remember when they lived feast to feast, their tables heaving under fine breads, quail and currant cakes, claret, cider, and all other manner of delights.”
“And these fools, these Jeffersons, these Madisons, these Walkers, all dazzled by theory, well, I am convinced that the most degraded field-hand, on the most miserable plot in Mississippi, knew more of the world than any overstuffed, forth-holding American philosophe. “And the lords and ladies of our country know this. This why they are so in thrall of the dance and song of your people. It is an unwritten library stuffed with a knowledge of this tragic world, such that it defies language itself. Power makes slaves of masters, for it cuts them away from the world they claim to comprehend. But I have given up my power, you see, given it up, so that now I might begin to see.”
“Soon you will understand it all. Soon you shall singularly comprehend, and then your comprehension will be a new binding, and in this binding—in this high duty—you will find your true nature.”
“It occurred to me that an examination of the Task revealed not just those evils particular to Virginia, to my old world, but the great need for a new one entirely. Slavery was the root of all struggle. For it was said that the factories enslaved the hands of children, and that child-bearing enslaved the bodies of women, and that rum enslaved the souls of men. In that moment I understood, from that whirlwind of ideas, that this secret war was waged against something more than the Taskmasters of Virginia, that we sought not merely to improve the world, but to remake it.”
“What I want is the same thing I have always wanted, what I have always told you I wanted. I want my hands, my legs, my arms, my smile, all my precious parts to be mine and mine alone.”
“But I think this is the lesson in it all. We forget sometimes—it is freedom we are serving, it is the Task that we are against. And freedom mean the right of a man to do as he please, not as we suppose. And if you have not been as we supposed, you have been as you were supposed to be.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His book Between the World and Me won the National Book Award in 2015. Coates is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.