• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates took his time building the story, and I felt as though he deliberately kept us in a plodding pace to emphasize the unwavering, repetitive misery of The Tasked.

Coates's The Water Dancer explores the relentless oppression and hopelessness of slavery, the resigned existence of the imprisoned, masters' willful brutality--although the horrors here are largely slow builds rather than violently wrought--and the spark to escape that persists.


The Water Dancer traces the life of Hiram Walker, a "Tasked" man (the word "slavery" is rarely used in the book) living and working on a Virginia plantation. His mother died when he was young, and he has no memory of her. But the white master of the plantation is Hiram's biological father, and composed young Hiram is set up as a companion to his foolish white half-brother (his father's heir). Hiram's lineage is acknowledged, and he shows himself to be far more intelligent and capable than his white brother--as well as preferred company for his father--yet racial barriers are rigid and clear. He may not inherit, nor may he rise above his station as owned and commanded by his white master.


Coates intersperses bursts of magical realism that promise an unexpected path to freedom, but in order to take advantage of these, Hiram must learn to understand and master his mysterious powers that allow for shifts in time and space. The Underground wishes to use his powers toward their own ends--which often coincide with Hiram's--but when their desired paths diverge, he must take ownership of his abilities for himself, reckoning with consequences and his own secure conscience.


The white savior character of Corinne is faulted and imperfect, yet I found myself bristling at her presence in the story. The weight put upon Hiram's inability to remember early moments with his mother felt unfair and its resolution felt too convenient.


The book was a slow mover; Coates took his time building the story, and I felt as though he deliberately kept us in a plodding pace to emphasize the unwavering, repetitive misery of The Tasked. There's a lot of thinking and considering and talking with short bursts of change or brief moments in which plans are enacted. The pacing suited the situation being explored, of the trapped and enslaved, but it was a struggle to read at times and made me impatient.


The brief author's note mentions Coates's inspiration of the real-life Still family for the family portrayed in The Water Dancer but refers the reader to other sources for more information.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

I listened to this as an audiobook, and Joe Morton's narration was excellent. Ta-Nehisi Coates also wrote the memoir Between the World and Me.


I mentioned this book (along with The Plot and Forgotten Kingdom) in the Greedy Reading List Three Books I'm Reading Now, 5/10/21 Edition.