Book Clubbin’: 10 Discussion Questions for The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Welcome to our monthly blog feature, Book Clubbin’!

Sometimes life can get so hectic that you’re lucky if you find time to shower let alone read your book club book in time. If your New Years’ resolution is to read more but you can’t find the time, audiobooks are the answer! You can press play on this month’s pick during your commute or while you’re cooking dinner and before you know it, you’ll have knocked out those pages in no time!

February’s pick is The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, narrated by Joe Morton. The novel is Coates’ first foray into fiction, whose bibliography also includes the acclaimed memoir Between the World and Me. Not only was The Water Dancer chosen for Oprah’s Book Club revival, but it also debuted at the top of the New York Times Fiction Best Seller list. Coates began writing the novel around 2008 and 2009 when he was doing extensive research on slavery and the Civil War. Set on a struggling tobacco plantation in Virginia, The Water Dancer follows Hiram Walker, a young mixed-race boy born into slavery who discovers he possesses a superhuman ability when he falls into a river.

You definitely don’t want to miss this striking debut novel. Check out our discussion questions below, but beware — SPOILERS ahead.


1) Is the story buoyed by only having Hiram’s point-of-view, or did you feel it was lacking in opportunity and diversity by excluding other characters’ voices?

2) Why do you think Coates decided to write The Water Dancer through the lens of magic realism? What did the addition of his characters’ extraordinary abilities allow Coates to explore and interrogate that he couldn’t have done if the novel wasn’t embellished with magic?

3) Memory is a key theme in the novel. What is Coates suggesting by making the power of Conduction directly tied to memories and the act of remembering? What is the significance of Hiram being unable to recall certain memories?

4) Consider this quote:

“At every gathering there was this dispute about my mother’s mother, Santi Bess, and her fate. The myth held that she had executed the largest escape of tasking folk—forty-eight souls—ever recorded in the annals of Elm County. And it was not simply that they had escaped but where they’d been said to escape to—Africa. It was said that Santi had simply led them down to the river Goose, walked in, and reemerged on the other side of the sea.”

Discuss the significance of River Goose which for some, such as Maynard, is a symbol of danger and death, while for others, like Hiram and Santi Bess, is a symbol of resistance and freedom.

5) How did you feel about the inclusion of a real historical figure such as Harriet Tubman in the story? What impact did it have?

6) Why do you think Coates chose to set The Water Dancer predominantly on a declining tobacco plant? How does Coates juxtapose the trajectory of Lockless to the plights of Hiram and the Underground?

7) Coates often wrestles with how the war against injustice should be waged. When Corrine Quinn and Hawkins plan to take down Georgie Parks, Hiram reminds us that even Georgie was forced into his exploits by circumstance. To what extent is revenge or punishment just when each character is trapped in one way or another?

8) Discuss the complexities of motherhood and fatherhood in the novel and the many forms of “family” we encounter. How does slavery corrupt families? How does Hiram come to define family by the end?

9) Consider the experiences of enslaved women versus enslaved men. How does Coates convey tensions between black characters along gender lines? How does it impact Hiram and Sophia’s relationship over time?

10) Is there any part of the book that you wish had been written differently?

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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.

Read more and sample the audio →

New to Get your first book free, PLUS a bonus book from our VIP selection when you sign up for our one-month free trial. Digital audiobooks make audible stories come to life when you’re commuting, working out, cleaning, cooking, and more! Listening is easy with our top-rated free audiobook apps for iOS and Android, which let you download & listen to bestselling audiobooks on the go, wherever you are. Click here to get your free audiobooks!