The Water Dancer Summary

The Water Dancer is the first novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It tells the story of Hiram Walker, who is born into slavery on a Virginia plantation called Lockless.

  • Hiram grows up one of the Tasked (enslaved). His mother was a slave, but his father is the plantation master. Hiram becomes the manservant of his father's legitimate son, Maynard, until Maynard dies.
  • Hiram discovers that he possesses the power of Conduction, or instantaneous travel—a power activated by memory. He is recruited as an agent of the Underground, helping slaves escape.
  • Hiram eventually takes over the running of Lockless, which becomes a station on the Underground.

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Last Updated on February 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792

Introduction

Ta-Nehisi Coates is perhaps best-known as a journalist and nonfiction writer: he is the author of the nonfiction books We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, which examines President Barack Obama’s legacy; Between the World and Me, composed as a letter to Coates’s son, which received the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and The Beautiful Struggle, a memoir. The Water Dancer, published in 2019, is Coates’s first novel.

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Plot Summary

The Water Dancer is a magical realist work in which the protagonist, Hiram Walker—a slave on a Virginia plantation—discovers that he has the power of teleportation, a power which he must learn to control through his memory. The prose is dense and descriptive, often bordering on the ornate. Coates creates his own vocabulary to avoid a sense of overfamiliarity with the issues. Slaves are known as the “Tasked.” Their masters are the “Quality.” Teleportation is called “Conduction.” Slaves who escape are said to have “gone Natchez-way.”

The story begins as Hiram is driving his half-brother, Maynard, over a bridge. Although the two have the same father—Howell Walker, the master of Lockless plantation—Maynard is white and is considered Walker’s legitimate son, while Hiram’s mother was a slave. The bridge collapses, and Maynard drowns. Hiram feels that he, too, is drowning and sees an apparition that ends with a dancing woman balancing a water jug on her head.

After this preamble, the narration returns to Hiram’s childhood. Hiram says that he has dreamed of getting away from Lockless for as long as he can remember. When he was nine, his mother was sold, and a woman called Thena took care of him. It was at this time in his life that he first discovered the power of Conduction, though not how to control it.

As he grew older, his father arranged for him to be taught by the same tutor as Maynard. Hiram proved an apt pupil, whereas Maynard was very slow. Hiram’s progress in his studies made him hope that his father was preparing him for a role in the running of Lockless, but as it transpired, he still intended Hiram to be Maynard’s manservant, despite his education.

Maynard has taken over the running of Lockless, but he is a poor master, and the rest of the Quality despise him. Howell hopes that Maynard’s shortcomings will be somewhat compensated for by marriage with a wealthy woman named Corrine Quinn. At this point in the story, there occurs the accident on the bridge, in which Maynard is killed.

Hiram attempts to run away from Lockless with another slave named Sophia, with whom he has an ambiguous relationship. He wants to marry her, but she makes it clear that she is not going to walk out of one trap and into another, since she regards marriage as a form of servitude for a woman. The two of them are caught almost immediately, and Hiram is imprisoned. He is bought by a sadistic man whose main purpose in keeping slaves is to torture them. This treatment triggers Hiram’s Conduction ability.

Corrine Quinn purchases Hiram and asks him to use his powers to help the Underground Railroad transport slaves to freedom. She sends him to Philadelphia, where he meets a woman who goes by the name of Moses. She later turns out to be Harriet Tubman, who also has the power of Conduction and teaches Hiram how to use it. She invokes the memory of her late husband, John, demonstrating that memory is of paramount importance in harnessing the power.

Hiram returns to Lockless, which has run to seed since his departure. He finds Sophia, who now has a child she assures him is not his. After some time, and many remonstrations from Thena and Sophia, Hiram accepts both Sophia and her child, and Corrine buys Sophia so that the three can be together. Hiram finds a shell necklace that belonged to his mother, and the memories evoked by this help him to master his Conduction abilities. Corrine buys Lockless and puts Hiram in control so they can use it as a station on the Underground Railroad.

Ultimately, The Water Dancer is as much about memory as it is about slavery. In his former work, Coates has written not only about the horrors of slavery as a matter of history but also, more urgently, about contemporary America’s predilection for forgetting those horrors. Hiram’s powers depend on his memory and his ability to face the past, harness it, and turn it to his advantage and that of other oppressed people. Coates invites his readers to do the same with the collective memory of slavery.

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