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 and an Oprah’s Book Club selection.
The Water Dancer is a magical realist work in which the protagonist, 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. While the book takes slavery as one of its principal subjects, it is not as polemical as one might expect from reading Coates’s non-fiction. 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 the protagonist, Hiram Walker, 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 is 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, we return to Hiram’s childhood. He 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...
(The entire section is 825 words.)