STAFF PICK: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Post by Kaleisha

Title: The Water Dancer
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Narrator: Joe Morton

Ever since it was announced that The Water Dancer was coming out, I could not wait to get my hands on it. I mostly read historical fiction, books on racial issues, and the occasional fantasy novel. This book checks off all three categories, not to mention it’s written by a man who is one of my idols.

The story takes place at a tobacco plantation in Virginia in the middle of the nineteenth century where we are introduced to our main character, Hiram Walker, a motherless young slave whose father is also his master. Hiram possesses a near-perfect memory and can remember almost every detail of his life, except his long lost mother who was sold away further south into “the coffin.” Without giving away too much, he is also gifted with a mysterious power that he calls “conduction” which he discovers after almost drowning in a river. After his brush with death, we see Hiram go from a member of the ‘Tasked’ to a captive runaway, and eventually an agent of the ‘Underground.’ Here he uses his knowledge to fight in the quiet war for freedom for himself and the ones he loves.

Even though this book is about slavery, Ta-Nehisi Coates never mentions the word “slave” in the entire book. Those who own land and slaves are called “Quality,” while whites who are not slave masters are called “Lows,” and slaves themselves are called “Tasked.”

The characters show real emotion and human flaws; their relationships are deep and complex. The story is meticulously accurate, while the element of magical realism makes it wildly imaginative. The story is filled with separation and pain but it is balanced with just enough love and hope. The plot flows at a steady, rhythmic pace. I do admit, it did take a little time to get through it due to the serious subject matter and the richness of Coates’ writing style. This is not a light and fluffy beach read but rather a beautiful piece of literature that I plan on reading more than once to soak it all in.

Joe Morton’s powerful voice matches that of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing. I hadn’t listened to any audiobooks narrated by him before this, but they could not have picked a better narrator. He captured Hiram’s nature perfectly. Morton did a wonderful job of voicing all of the other characters and their unique accents from the deep south of Alabama to the northern city of Philadelphia

I’ve been a longtime fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates. He was a journalist and editor for The Atlantic for over a decade, writing about racial, social, and political issues. He shook the world in 2015 with his memoir Between the World and Me, which was written as a letter to his teenage son about what it means to be a young black man in America. I highly recommend checking that out, too.

The majority of Coates’ works that I have experienced, however, is through graphic novels. He has been writing for Marvel since 2016. His run of Black Panther is so powerful and moving that it rekindled my childhood love of comics. Being a diverse author who can produce imaginative works for comic books, as well as rich and moving pieces of non-fiction, it was a matter of time before he released a novel. The Water Dancer lived up to and exceeded my expectations of what a novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates would be. It was everything I wanted, and then some.

Ta-Nehisi Coates truly deserves congratulations for his debut novel. It brought me to tears and is unlike any book on slavery or the Underground Railroad that I have ever listened to. I hope this is just the beginning of his work as a novelist and cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next.

Publisher Summary:

From the National Book Award–winning author of Between the World and Me, a boldly conjured debut novel about a magical gift, a devastating loss, and an underground war for freedom.

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 idealistic 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.

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