Review: 4 / 5
Hardcover, 403 pages
One World, 2019
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 a breath-taking story infused with melancholy and hope. The Water Dancer explores a unique what-if scenario: what if American slaves had the power to free themselves thanks to a supernatural gift that gives its bearer, in this case 12-year-old Hiram, the chance to release his people from their cruel bondage? How would that alter the course of their history and the inherited experiences of their descendants?
Hiram’s gift is activated when the car carrying him and his white half-brother goes off a bridge but only Hiram is saved thanks to a vision moments earlier of his mother dancingm which activates his Conduction power.
Shocked at this discovery, Hiram grapples with mastering and using it to help other enslaved people travel safely to freedom, while also reconciling it with his other gift – a photographic memory – and his experiences with both agents and travellers on the Underground Railway.
However, Hiram’s gift comes at a price. In order to access it, he must tap into memories, sometimes painful, in order to become a Conductor. As his gains more experience and learns that he shares this unique ability with none other than the great Harriet Tubman herself, Hiram begins to grow as a person and a fighter as he understands his place in the story of his people’s struggle while also keeping a tight hold on his humanity through the people and memories that are important to him.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ use of water as a metaphor for Conduction is powerful on several layers: it evokes the terrified journey of captivated people to their enslavement, with some choosing a desperate hope or death by jumping overboard rather than reaching their perilous destination. It also touches on the folkloric stories passed down through generations about Black people making their way back home. And finally, it explores the power of water as an literal and metaphoric entity that has a mythical power in its own right: the power to cleanse and heal, the power to change the environment that surrounds it, the power of transformation, and finally, its power to nourish life.
A must-read, grab your copy of The Water Dancer wherever it is available.