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THE WATER DANCER is a beautifully written book that speaks from the heart about the ravages the institution of slavery wreaked upon the human spirit and decency itself. I loved UNCLE TOM'S CABIN and years after reading it, it remains my favorite book. THE WATER DANCER shares many similarities with that classic.
The lyrical writing and magical realism that follow Hiram Walker from his life as a slave, to freedom in the north, pulls you into a world where power is skewed and undeserving men determine the lives of everyone around them, ripping families apart at will, without guilt or conscience. Hiram Walker returns to the white father that held him in slavery and the fading tobacco plantation he grew up on as an agent of The Underground Railroad. He has one goal: to free the ones he loves from the oppression of slavery!
In his travels, he comes into contact with important historical figures, including Harriet Tubman. This is a amazing story. Read it!!!
After reading a three-star review of Water Dancer, I had to write my own and give Water Dancer five stars: Though he usually writes non-fiction, Coates ‘attempt’ at historical science fiction is better than many other books by many other authors out there and puts him squarely in the group of other wonderful writers I have been enjoying this year: Colson Whitehead, Richard Wright, Jesmyn Ward, and Alice Walker.
Hiram’s world in Water Dancer reminds me of Janie Crawford’s world in Zoe Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and of Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy. And also of the many motivations behind the African-American diaspora recounted in Isabel Wright’s account of The Great Migration. He does use the frame of the Underground Railroad for the plot—a topic at once tired, sacrosanct, and trending. Like many people, I wondered whether he could make that work. Then, like Colson Whitehead, he pulled it off with the panache and flair of a seasoned SF writer.
I’m fascinated about the role of African-Americans in the Philadelphia malarial plague of 1793 and about how “the story of the White family takes the real-life saga of William and Peter Still and their family as its inspiration.” I plan to read further on the source material Coates has credited. The movement of slave-holders and slaves from tired land on the east coast to places in Kentucky and further south is also a topic of interest.
In the living, breathing character of Hiram, I think that Coates has achieved what few writers have done--created a character whose ambivalence and awareness is always growing: He faces the world of the Task throughout. He carefully examines the damage done to all of the people he has known and loved in his life. He lives, as far as possible, an examined and authentic life. The limits, fears, hopes, dreams, physical debilitation, casual rape, and emotional suffering of slavery, ‘the Task,’ are all here in a swirl of the best descriptive language and imaging available—they have the weight of the supernatural and superhuman. Hiram’s personal struggle to have a vision/solution to his particular set of problems continually sets him apart: He seems way past being able to know and protect the people he loves in a consistent manner—the Task keeps rolling on—the laundry.
4 1/2 star read. This Oprah book club selection was a very different and engrossing read. Coates tells the story of Hiram Walker, a slave on the fabled Lockless plantation in Virginia. Hiram is a servant to his half brother Maynard and is a motherless boy, as his master sold his mother off. His journey begins with a tragic accident that could have killed him, but didn't. He realizes he has a special power but knows little about it. But others suspect he has the power and involve him in the Underground Railroad in hopes that he can uses his power to liberate others like himself. This book is heartfelt and an absorbing read. I thought it was quite a beautiful read about the time of slavery in the South.
Not a fan if the mystical elements woven into this story, as it seems to downgrade the work of Harriet Tubman. There are nice poetic turns, but I was surprised that the author didn't tell us what the protagonist looked like until the end of the story. I believe this book is an Oprah's book club selection because of the subject matter, but not because of great writing skills. This is an interesting story, but not a classic
Read an immersive tale to celebrate the Underground Railroad.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first work of fiction is as beautiful and wise as his essays!
An interesting read that nevertheless seemed to keep me at arms length throughout. I appreciated getting a better perspective of the different experiences slaves endured, and I wondered if because the characters had to section off their emotions if the author was writing in a way to create that same experience in the reader. I cared, but it was as if I was held back from being able to care too much. Not sure if that makes sense. The magical realism aspects were creative, but kind of took me out of the story. It was an interesting way to consider Harriet Tubman, but I almost felt it discounted the bravery and cleverness and strength required to actually cover all the miles that she trudged by foot. All in all - definitely worth reading, and probably a good choice for a book club because there are lots of things to discuss. And the bonus of listening to it on audiobook is the reader actually sings the snippets of songs--a definite plus.
Magical realism is an infusion of magical into reality, hence the term. It's usage lends itself to the awe and wonder of a woman that freed many enslaved during a terrible time in US history. It's not a literary device everyone will enjoy, but it is such an intriguing way to explore Harriet Tubman. I love reading Coates for his ability to infuse this real world and its troubles into his fictional works. Highly recommend this incredible book.
"The jump is done by the power of the story. It pulls from our particular histories, from all of our loves and all of our losses, all of that feeling is called up and on the strength of our remembrances, we are moved." This is Conduction.
This book is purely and simply a revelation. Ta-Nehisi Coates tells the story of one man's experiences with the legendary Underground with top shelf style and imagination. He turns a phrase like only a poet can, everything from the imagery of the deep south to the emotional turmoil of a freed man turned back to slavery serves as a means of reader Conduction to Lockless Plantation.
The ease with which the reader is immersed in this world make it one of the best works of magical realism I've ever read. But it's the story of Hiram and the Underground itself, tackling themes like ancestral rage, white allyship, and feminism that make it one of the most important.
I ended up renting the audio version and I’m so glad I did. It took a little bit to get into the book but once I did I loved it. It was also cool that it included some magical realism. I would suggest this book.
I picked up this book upon recommendation. It was ok, thus 3 stars. I am not good with mysticism so would not likely have ever adored this book. It was a bit of a slog for me. I definitely could put it down. It was an interesting concept but my Virgo mind struggles with "the fantastic" as it were. I don't think that I will recommend this book to anyone and will likely forget I've read it among the many other stellar titles that I have read of late.
Incredibly moving story of the Tasked people at the unmerciful end of Virginian slavery, brutal yet beautiful; full of love, faith, and a little bit of ancient magic for good measure.
While the pacing was slow, I felt like it was part of the story that because Hiram remembered so many details in memories that they would need to be described in order to accomplish his point of view effectively. However, the slow pacing is my only negative comment. It is both beautiful and ugly, giving each character depth and showing the horror of slavery. I found the stories contained inside much like water themselves, a constant ebb and flow. Not what I imagined, but a novel I enjoyed nonetheless.
I found this a very difficult book to get enthused about reading. The “magical” aspect was a little too unbelievable. If I had not been forced to stay at home these weeks, I probably would not have finished reading it.
I read this for the "Literary Fiction" part of my 2020 reading challenge. I expected to like this, I wish I had liked this, but I really didn't. I usually like historical fiction and fantasy and everything, but this was just really slow and lackluster. The second half was easier to get through than the first half, but I still felt really let down by this book.
The first novel by brilliant writer Coates explores the powerful influence of memory on a remarkable Hiram Walker, enslaved in Virginia’s tobacco empire and ‘recruited’ by the Underground.
Remarkable cast of characters that explores the tangled webs of relationships among those whom Coates calls the Tasked, Quality and Low. The story of those working the Underground takes on new dimensions in this telling, shedding light on an oft told story. Coates gorgeous prose is on display. What a writer. If anything, like another reviewer commented, the expansive prose slowed the narrative to the point I was losing patience near the end. Otherwise, a can't miss book!
How do you recover your humanity when it is ripped from you? Create magic from love, loyalty, memory, language.
This is the kind of book that improves upon reflection. I had to read carefully sometimes to understand what was going on, but it was worth it. My favorite part of the book was the evolution of the relationship between Hiram and Sophia. She taught him that a woman doesn't need to settle for possession by any man, whether white or black: "Ain't no freedom for a woman in trading a white man for colored" (111).
“The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse or strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them. We had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.”
“Bored whites were barbarian whites. While they played at aristocrats, we were their well-appointed and stoic attendants. But when they tired of dignity, the bottom fell out. New games were anointed and we were but pieces on the board. It was terrifying. There was no limit to what they might do at this end of the tether, nor what my father [the white Master of the plantation] would allow them to do.”
This story is set on a Virginia tobacco plantation and on the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s, when “smaller” plantations on the east coast are in the midst of selling off mothers, fathers, and children to plantations to the west and south (“Natchez way”) to realize any profit they can muster from their dwindling investments. Hiram Walker was born to a slave, and his father is none other than the Master of the plantation himself, though this is nowhere near enough to lift Hiram above the status of livestock. He’s an unbelievably smart and capable young man, and Coates develops these traits in ways that, for the reader, aren’t necessarily central to the narrative arc of the book, but storytelling around the genius and intellect of slaves aren’t something pervasive in American literature and I was captivated by those parts.
Akin to how Colson Whitehead makes the Underground Railroad literal in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Coates literalizes the magic of how slaves somehow kept alive their hope and humanity through the hell that was slavery. This magic has a matriarchal flavor to it, and many of the women in this story are as wise, powerful, smart, and resilient as any heroes I can remember.
I already had tears on my white cheeks by the end of Chapter 1, eight pages in. But they weren’t tears shed as a result of thinking of the horrible treatment received by an entire group of humans for dozens of generations. No, it was the magic I referred to above that literally saved the life of Hiram as this beautifully told story begins; the transcendent power of that generational magic that slaves created, developed, maintained, and passed down over the past 350+ years. They are the same type of tears one might fail to preserve when experiencing something of immense and timeless beauty, like listening to a particular piece of music by Alan Silvestri and City of Prague Philharmonic orchestra from the “Castaway” soundtrack, or reading journalist Joe Posnanski’s review of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”, or seeing the ocean for the first time as a 16-year old kid from Kansas City. (Links in comments below.)
I don’t want this review to turn into a dozen pages, so I won’t expound on the different parts of life and humanity and history on which this book encouraged me to reflect and rethink. Coates is one of only a handful of writers, living or dead, whose works I *must* read, maybe because of how he is so powerfully and eloquently able to make readers consider the effects racism and slavery and misogyny on individual human beings’ humanity in ways that we white folks could never understand from the few pages we read about slavery in our middle- and high school textbooks (especially the textbooks in Texas. :) )
I admittedly have an irregularly high bar for recommending a book (I’ll choose my own books, thank you very much), but I highly recommend this one.
5 out of 5 Merritt Badges
A story of slavery and journeys to freedom, beautifully written. I do think it could have been edited for length, parts seem a bit overly extended. Also it's the kind of book you have to pay close attention to while reading.
This book details w/ the atrocities of Slavery in a well told story of a Southern Community and Families. Hiram has exceptional powers and intelligence which evolve for increased influence and understanding. It's rewarding to see Hiram and his colleagues grow and free many "Tasked" people. This book gives hope where I imagine often none existed.
Way too long, not well written. This author has taken a very serious topic and trivialized it with hocus pocus. Do not recommend this book.
GOOD BOOK. Read the nonfiction book The War Before the War after you finish this novel. It focuses on the Fugitive Slave Act and how it set the stage for the Civil War or as some of my Southerrn relatives call it The War of Yankee Aggression.