‘The Water Dancer’ considers the power of memory and stories

“The Water Dancer” is Ta-Nehisi Coates' debut novel.

“The Water Dancer” is Ta-Nehisi Coates' debut novel.

TinaMarie Craven / Hearst Connecticut Media /

“Now I've been free, I know what a dreadful condition slavery is. I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave.” — Harriet Tubman

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

First things first, Oprah (you know THE Oprah) selected Ta-Nehisi Coates’ debut novel “The Water Dancer” as one of her book club reads, so this week’s review has Oprah’s stamp of approval.

When readers first meet Hiram Walker, he’s drowning in a river. During this near-death experience Hiram begins to reflect on his life, thinking back on the moments in his life that led him to that moment, trapped in the Goose with his white half-brother flailing in the current. Hiram was raised as a slave on his father’s plantation and finds himself serving his cruel and dimwitted brother. As Hiram tells his story, Coates paints each paragraph with evocative imagery of life on a declining plantation. After escaping the river, Hiram finds he can no longer live under the bonds of slavery and makes a run for it. From here Coates’ takes the reader on a vivid quest for freedom, as Hiram recounts all that befell him after he left his father’s home at Lockless.

Coates paints a powerful and electrifying picture of what it was like to live in a society that valued people as property and the death-defying desire for freedom.

This book is not just historical fiction, it is a beautiful meditation on memory and the gifts we can inherit from our ancestors. “The Water Dancer” is not to be devoured, but a book meditated over, every word savored and pondered.

From the book jacket…

“Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her — but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.

So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.”

In you enjoy…

Readers who enjoy “The Water Dancer” might be interested in Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys.” The book also heavily focuses on a memory, as Whitehead spins a yarn of injustice at a Southern juvenile facility for boys.