Review: The Water Dancer

By Rachel MacFarland

As a general statement, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer worth putting on your radar. Most of his work is non-fiction: modern, American, political, cultural, male, Black. He’s sharp-witted, with a critical brain. I’ve read pieces of his book We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays about the Obama presidency, and in that title alone, you can hear the lyricism that permeates his critical theory. If you could put such a voice on a scale, it would weigh more than one single man; that heavy runs throughout his writings, a beautiful and often painful weight. 

Now, I can’t remember exact details, but somewhere amidst the essays of that book, he writes about envisioning his own voice, his muse. All writers grapple with voice; it’s necessary territory. But what Coates describes in that book is not just sound, tone, and style—it’s an actual Being, a figure. He could see his voice, and, if I remember right, it wasn’t entirely human. Personally, I had never read any writer who’d approached the concept of voice in this way, and while I’ve lost the specific details, the feeling remains—the incredulity of perception, locked into the power of memory. 

And memory’s power is one of the central themes of Coates’s fictional debut, The Water Dancer, published in 2019 by One World. The book is not only fiction, but magical realism (my fave), and historical fiction…sort of. It’s set in the twilight years of Virginia’s tobacco-plantation/slave-run splendor, and takes place largely on a plantation known as Lockless, owned by the Walker family, run by Howell Walker. I say “sort of” (regarding the book’s historical context) because while the setting is obviously a real time in United States history, Coates doesn’t work the story in the lockstep of the clock’s measure. With such an untethering, it’s possible to create a freer examination of an unfree time, rather than trying to fit the story into pre-made molds. This is a general rule of magical realism, and can be said much simpler: fuck Time. 

The story centers on a young slave named Hiram, who is the son of Howell Walker, a “bi-product” of an affair Walker had with Hiram’s mother, one of his slaves. Hiram has a brother, a white brother, named Maynard, who is set to inherit the whole plantation: typical rich party boy (also see: Loser). Hiram’s mother is sold off when Hiram is still very young, and while he possesses an uncanny gift for memory, the one thing he can’t remember is his mother. When Howell catches wind of Hiram’s unique intelligence, Hiram is brought up from the Street (where the field-workers live) to work in the main house, acting as Maynard’s attendant. Hiram will never be privy to Maynard’s spoils, but he is educated and brought up alongside him. They grow up together and apart, until one day, in their early manhood, their carriage goes over a bridge crossing the Goose River, and Maynard drowns. Hiram lives, by a miracle of his own making—something he comes to understand and control, eventually, over a span of several long years, many near-impossible lessons, and his introduction to the Underground and it’s mysterious legend, Moses (also known as Harriet). As you can see, Coates is working in the spaces that surround old story and new take.  

One of my favorite aspects of the book is the way Coates sidesteps the standard master/slave split, and he does this with a simple rhetorical shift. Within the slave system, he refers to the world as a place between two poles—the Quality and the Task. Skin color is there, obviously, impossible to escape in our historical context, but I found that his renaming functioned as a reframing; the world is built on the lifestyle of Quality, created by those chained to the Task. It’s nothing new, and yet it is. His invocation of those words allows for a refresh in the rhetoric of American slavery. We haven’t yet talked ourselves out of the ugliness of acting on behalf of enslavement, and a change in language can be a change of mind, of heart. 

Of course, this is a huge, heavy topic, and Coates tries to solve it, in some sense, or perhaps absolve it on a personal level, and there are shortcomings. The characters lose definition at times, as if they haven’t been quite fully developed. The story loses some of its urgency at the end, seems to tire rather than satisfy. Still, by and large, this is an entirely worthy read, and Coates descriptions of the water dancers—the spinning, dancing women balancing jugs of water on their heads, defying gravity—are gorgeous. You can’t write that kind of homage without respect.

In fact, to end on a high, I’ll say that of the many, many books I’ve read by men, Coates writes all of the women characters in this book with the respect, thought, and decency of a true equal; he doesn’t slight them character development because of their sex. And since I’m a white woman, I’ll align myself with the particular white woman who has a large role in this narrative, in order to further my point. Coates’ has a scene in the book where Hiram and this woman (Corrine) reveal their intentions/burdens in their roles in the Underground, and in the greater story of the troubled nation; it’s a powerful scene, a meeting of archetypes, and it could have been played a million ways, all depending on Coates’ own intentions and burdens. He wrote that scene with so much grace, honesty, and integrity, while also sidestepping sentimentality or sweetness—it wasn’t polite, or contrived; it was real. And maybe, maybe it wasn’t entirely human. A strike of the muse. 

That is Quality. 

Rachel MacFarland is Co-Publisher/Writer/Curator at Ope! Publishing in La Crosse.

We need your support. Help The La Crosse Independent grow by becoming a patron for just $5.75 a month here.