Looks can be deceptive. The intelligent man with a sharp memory and a supernatural power is a slave to his buffoon of a half-brother. The fiancée of the buffoon, Corrine, is actually an agent of the mysterious Underground Railroad. The master of the estate keeps up appearances when the entire estate is in ruins. Ta-Nehisi Coates is best known for his nonfiction and often autobiographical novels (Between the World and Me, We Were Eight Years in Power) but here he strides firmly into the fiction world with The Water Dancer, a powerful and moving story about the magic of slaves.
Hiram Walker is an orphan slave with a remarkable talent where he can recount any event that he has witnessed or heard. And he uses that talent to gain an education from his father, who sees a potential for Hiram to become his useless half-brother’s tasked servant for life. No matter how much potential a black slave had, it was always surpassed by the color of their skin. When Hiram narrowly survives a near-death accident his brother caused and where he died, he becomes adrift in a society where his choices in life are limited.
Through it all, Hiram is haunted by the image of his mother, who is nothing but wisps of smoke in his mind’s eye. She disappeared one night when he was very young and though he has a sharp memory, Hiram can’t recall any of her physical features. The more he tries to remember, the more elusive she is, dancing away from him in his mind.
In life, we’re given many options. But when our main purpose is taken away from us, where do we go from there? In Hiram’s case, his whole life was positioned to care for his brother, and without him, the only other prospect was to remain a slave to his father’s estate for the rest of his life. Or run away. But it’s hard to tell people who were born into slavery that they even have the choice of running. The thought was daunting even though Hiram had heard stories of people escaping through the elusive Underground Railroad. And when he decided to take the risk of believing in the passage to freedom, he placed his trust in the wrong people.
In the South, looks can be extremely deceptive. Corrine uses her status as the mourning widow to disguise her actions behind closed doors. And when she discovers Hiram’s special power, she uses it to her advantage. Hiram has the ability to ‘conduct’, where he can teleport to another place through the power of storytelling. But would you call it freedom when you’re tied to an organization that requires the use of your powers?
After his experiences of running, being captured, and tortured, Hiram learns to grow and accept who he is in society as a free slave. With his honed powers, he serves as an agent of the Underground Railroad, reuniting families and bringing slaves to freedom. But there is a piece of him missing, a place in his heart where his mother occupies. She is the elusive woman he can’t remember, only seeing her as mist along the water or through stories told by others.
Nothing is as it seems in life. Ta-Nehisi Coates tackles the difficult topic of slavery in The Water Dancer, creating a powerful story about memory and your true purpose in life. Even in today’s super-connected world many of us still feel “lost”, unable to figure out what our purpose is. Sometimes this clouds the reality that we’re fortunate enough not to be limited by the color of our own skin. That by reaching and putting ourselves on the line we have the choice to work on our passions, to create our own sense of freedom and to live a life full of purpose. That’s the idea anyway. That’s the hope within each of us.