The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a powerhouse of a journalist and writer. Let’s just start with that. In case you haven’t heard of him, here’s a little 411 on this incredible man. He has worked as a journalist for various publication outlets such as TIME, The Village Voice, Philadelphia Weekly and was a senior editor for The Atlantic where he wrote about social, political issues and much more. He has also been a guest columnist at the New York Times Magazine, O, The Washington Post, and Washington Monthly. He has accomplished a great deal in his career. I first heard of him when his Non Fiction book titled, Between The World and Me (Published in 2015) hit the number 1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller list. This book won the 2015 National Book Award for Non Fiction, and it was literary everywhere! It was also a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for General Non Fiction. I’ve yet to read it but you best believe I will very soon! The Water Dancer is the first novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
When The Water Dancer came out last year in September, 2019 I knew immediately that I had to read it. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to do so! Oprah called it -"one of the best books I have ever read in my entire life. Right up there in the Top 5." SO yah, I had high expectations. Also the cover of this book is extremely breathtaking. This book was named one of the best books of the year by TIME magazine, it was a New York Times #1 best seller, it was an Oprah Book Club pick, it was on every single best seller review list, I mean, you get the gist. It’s a helluva book. I’m so glad that I finally read it and can tell you all what I thought of this epic read.
The setting is Virginia during the Antebellum South in the mid-19th century.
We follow a young boy named Hiram Walker who was born into slavery on a declining tobacco plantation named Lockless located in Virginia. When Hiram was at a very young age, his mother was sold away by his white father Howell Walker, who was the plantation owner. Hiram was gifted with a mysterious power and he had an incredible photographic memory but was robbed of all memory of his mother. Years later, Hiram almost drowns in a river, but he is then saved by his mysterious power. This intense brush of death burns an urgency in Hiram that he never felt before, and he begins a daring and dangerous scheme to leave the plantation, the only home he has ever known.
Thus begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt environment of the plantation in Virginia, to the desperate wilderness of the unknown, to the caged coffin of the Deep South, and into seriously dangerous and idealistic movements of the North. His mysterious talents aid him and he becomes enlisted in the underground railroad, of which there are wars between the slaved and the enslaved and where there is much to do. Although, deep inside, is his resolve to rescue the only family he has ever known and had left behind.
The Water Dancer is a dramatic story of the hardships and atrocity inflicted on generations of men, women and children during the pre-civil war era. It’s a coming-of-age story from boyhood to manhood, and from enslavement in the deep south and towards freedom in the free territories of the north.
All I can say about this book right now, is WOW. Why I waited to read this book till now, is beyond me. I remember distinctly finishing the 2nd chapter of this book and thinking. Holy hell. This right here, is an amazing book, and I was only in the 2nd chapter people!! I felt it in my bones, in the immensely beautiful writing, in the refreshing, intriguing characters, and in the story. What. A. Book.
I’m going to start off with saying that a lot happens in this book. A lot! I actually went into this book completely blind and I had no idea whatsoever what the book was about. I did know that it had something to do with slavery but that was about it. All I knew is that I had to read it because Oprah said so, and she also said it’s probably on her top 5 favorite books ever! I have also heard amazing things about Coates as a writer, and now I get what the hype is all about. In The Water Dancer, you become completely transported into the past. We are not in 2020 you guys. You genuinely felt like this book was written in the mid-19th century, pre-civil war period. It’s an instant classic. There was something exquisitely timeless about the way this book was written and I immediately felt that within reading a couple of chapters. The amount of layers in this book is insane, and we are sort of thrown into Hiram’s life without any sort of warning. It’s a lot. But it’s all so delicious and leaves you wanting more.
Let's talk about the characters in this book. Hiram Walker. He is the protagonist and the narrator of this story. What a character. Mixed race, a slave, his mother gets sold when he was just a boy, his white father owns the plantation of which Hiram works in and he doesn’t really have any parental figures, or have any close relationships with either of his parents. That alone in itself, is a lot to take in. We come-of-age with young Hiram, and truly understands what his struggles are in this life that he has been given. The people that surround him were all extensively crucial in shaping who he came to be in his later years. I loved the character of Thena, his sort of adoptive mother in the plantation from when Hiram’s mother, Rose, was sold. Thena is a complex and melancholy character, who has been through an enormous amount of hardship throughout her life at the plantation. You come to respect Thena and was in awe of her grit and resilience in this story. I loved the relationship between her and Hiram, especially towards the end of the book. I also adored the character who plays Hiram’s love interest, Sophie. What a beautiful and complex relationship. Realistic, raw, and testing in the circumstances that they are in. There were a lot of characters in this book, definitely over 10 main characters at least, but it felt necessary with where Coates was taking us within each chapter as you read on. Each and every individual character played a unique role in this multilayered novel.
There were some wonderful surprises in this book that I won’t mention! I also seriously loved the magical realism that took part in this book. When we think of the days of slavery, there is always a little bit of magic that plays part whether it’s with the slaves communicating with each other through song, or maybe the souls that live on long after they’ve died, and have passed along their tradition through family and friends. There was something quite comforting about the use of magical folklore in this book that a lot of people will enjoy.
The writing is what truly did it for me in The Water Dancer. It was seriously on another level and this is what got me in those first couple of chapters. I was blown away. Utterly sublime, exquisite and timeless. *Side Bar* I actually had listened to the audiobook for The Water Dancer, which I was a little adamant about in the beginning, but I was totally sold when I heard who was narrating the audiobook. Joe Morton. My goodness. He did an absolutely stellar job narrating this book! He truly served the sheer weight of this book its justice with his amazing skilled acting and his beautiful tone of his voice and narration. I highly highly recommend the audiobook. With that being said, I will 100% be read this book in the future. I must own it as I really want to get my eyes on the words of this book.
Lets go back to the writing of this book though. It was by far, my favorite use of the English language in any book that I have read in a long long time. It was in the choice of words that Coates would use. For example, he called the enslaved “the tasked”, it felt quite bold and creative. Listening or reading to The Water Dancer, at times, felt like you were reading or listening to a poem. I adored this book.
I think, and it’s not the end of the year yet, but I think this is the best book that I have read in 2020. There. I said it. I was completely blown away by this amazing read. The fact that Coates tackled one of America’s hardest and difficult periods with such grace and bold writing completely puts him on a whole other level for me. The Water Dancer was an imaginative, breathtaking, and exquisite read. I mostly remember one particular message that this book relayed to me, which is, the sheer relentless, resilience of the slaves, and how they took matters into their own hands, and chose to risk their lives to free others, and for their own freedom. A lot happens to Hiram in this book, but I loved the subliminal messages that Coates sprinkles throughout the book. Coates did some extensive research for this book and it truly shows. I adored the water theme in the novel. Seeing as slaves literally did come from across the sea, the symbolism together with how water plays such an important role in this book was raw and imaginative.
One of my favorite quotes in the book was;
“The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, nor 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 for their lives.”
Who are the slave owners without their slaves? It was harrowing to read. The Water Dancer was never too violent, never too long, never boring, and kept you wanting to read more and more. It dealt with the complexities that one endured during slavery but freshly told. It dealt with the damaging horror of family separation, it was about love, loss, and was an adventurous coming-of-age story and also a tender romance. I adored it. I’m officially a Ta-Nehisi Coates fan. This is a book that I will seriously remember for years to come. I don’t often feel sad when finishing a book, but with The Water Dancer, I was genuinely upset that it had ended. An enthralling and eloquent book. I hope they'll make this book into a movie!
For my song pick, I wanted a song by a man, and with quite a soulful, baritone feel. I felt the need to choose something from our time, but with a voice and style that fit the time period of this book. Something about this novel felt quite fresh and bold.
My song pick was ‘Coming Home’ by Leon Bridges. I love Leon Bridges, he sounds like he’s from a completely different time period. (highly recommend his first album!)
If you read this book, listen to this song and you’ll know why I chose it :)
Genre: Historical Fiction | Coming-Of-Age | Race | Magical Realism
Publication Date: September 24, 2019
Pages: 403 Pages (hardcover)