Described as “boldly conjured,” The Water Dancer is the debut novel from non-fiction writer and National Book Award-winner Ta-Nehisi Coates. It tells the story of young Hiram Walker, son of a slave and a slave-owner, who struggles with the competing poles of freedom and family, of memory and power, and of duty to self and duty to the greater good.
The story begins with a memory, or perhaps more accurately, the memory. It is the root and the truth that offers Hiram, called Hi, unparalleled power, but also the burden of deep pain. Just as Hiram is described as having a “magical gift,” the book’s opening is a magical gift to its reader. I was immediately drawn to this boy’s story, to his circumstance, and to the promise that is his destiny, made clear from the narrative’s atmosphere without so much as a word of it being spoken, or written. But then that magic, that promise, gets lost somewhere, and for most of the book, I read on only in hopes that it will return.
Much as I appreciated Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant memoir, Between the World and Me, something about his prose fiction left me less invested and even a little bit skeptical. There are two major struggles I had with the book that made it both a bit of a trudge to get through and a concerning experience. In the first case, Hiram narrates much of what happens to him through the perspective of others. So, although the story is told in the first-person, the reader relies on what other characters think and feel and say about Hiram in order to get any real understanding of who Hi is supposed to be. Maybe that’s intentional, as Hiram is indeed lost to himself for most of his journey, but the problem is that it does not feel intentional. It feels like a lack in characterization. Hiram’s power; Hiram’s promise; Hiram’s goodness; Hiram’s appeal. The characters tell Hiram he has all of this, but this reader never saw it developed on its own. In other words, if someone in the story wasn’t relaying how remarkable Hiram is, how would we know it?
And a little sociopolitical concern (not a critique of the narrative itself):
The second concern is one that I’ve been debating about including at all, and that is that this book falls into what seems to be a new trend in contemporary historical fiction, which is to treat real lives and real times with elements of fantasy or science-fiction. Other recent works that come to mind are Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Kasi Lemmon’s 2019 film, Harriet. As someone who is not a person of color, I don’t feel qualified to critique this trend, but as an ally, I can’t help but admit I’m concerned about how many real historic events and historic heroes, like Harriet Tubman, are being recast in fantasy roles, with magical abilities. Someone much smarter than me can probably explain the appeal of this, but I worry about how this might open the door for coordinated, bad-faith re-framing of historical truths. What I mean is, we know there are already alternative (false) narratives surrounding American history, particularly as it pertains to the treatment of non-white, non-straight, non-male persons in the United States (i.e. slavery, women, immigrants, indigenous people, homosexuals, etc). At first, these stories were simply muted; now, however, as various diverse cultural communities have begun to assert their voices and to tell their stories, they have been met with responses ranging from simple dismissal, to violent opposition, to assaults on their value or truth.
We see this in the way some people treat the Civil War as, for example, “the war between the states,” or even more disingenuously, “the war of northern aggression.” There are people who now argue that slavery was a good thing, that black people were better off in the antebellum era, etc. We see this, too, in the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who believe (or who for reasons of politics and religious prejudice pretend to believe) that the Jewish holocaust of World War 2 was a hoax. A more optimistic reader might be thinking, right now, “Oh, come now, people can tell the difference between the historical figures and events and their fictional depictions.” Are we sure, though? And are we sure that in 50 or 100 years, after a couple of generations of recasting powerful, heroic historic figures like Harriet Tubman–who did real human work with real human skill–as fantasy figures, that their legacy won’t begin to be diminished by the very attempt these re-tellings make to elevate them? As a teacher/scholar of the history of narrative, I’m not convinced that the truth which becomes legend which becomes fantasy does much justice to the true history of a time and its people, but this is especially true when there are concerted efforts being made by powerful and organized forces who very much intend to capitalize on any opportunity to deny the narrative of traditionally marginalized and oppressed people, or to change it altogether. If they can make people believe it was fantasy, without any help from representative writers and allies, what will they be able to do once those very writers write-into the mode? If the original story and all its struggle is already lost to contemporary audiences, what makes us believe they’ll be able to simultaneously separate the fantasy fiction from the real story at its foundation?
[A Note: Just a few years ago, I taught The Book Thief to two sections of College English–Freshman-level. The majority of my students in both sections had no basic knowledge about World War II or the Holocaust to begin with; I found myself having to teach the history in order to teach this one novel’s treatment of it. How do we expect most casual readers, then, to take a book about Harriet Tubman, which affords her magical powers, and not expect the ensuing cultural interpretation of that person to become the fantasy version? I’m thinking, now, of the way my generation used to think of Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan, when we were young. How long did it take most of us to learn about the real people behind those tall tales? How many of us bothered?]
I suppose I want these figures to be legends for the right reason, heroes for the right reason. I worry that if we turn them into something they are not, in the cultural lexicon they will become fantasy figures. And fantasies can be much more easily disregarded than historical facts.
Anyhow, those are the two challenges I had, personally, reading this one. The first was, I thought, a problem in the narrative itself, particularly in characterization. After the initial connection the early chapters make, the romance fizzles out for me and I struggled to carry on, to feel invested, or to even believe in this Hiram, who so many other characters seemed to have such expectations for but without much articulated reason. The other challenge for me is, as explained, one about the larger conversation rather than about the story itself.
All that being said, Ta-Nehisi Coates is without doubt a powerful writer and thinker, and an insightful one. His philosophy, even the very conversation he has with his son in Between the World and Me, comes through in the telling of Hiram Walker’s tale, too. There’s a heavy focus on two elements, for example, which are the importance of memory and the importance of names or naming. Throughout the story, the narrator reminds us that without facing our own memories, especially the painful ones, we cannot really expect to develop into our full being or to take ownership of our own lives, choices, and destinies. Coates seems to suggest, rightly, I think, that to avoid where we came from is to deny from ourselves a complete future. Similarly, as makes sense with a story about slavery, is the power of one’s name, which sometimes means choosing a name for ourselves. This, too, is an ancient trope of fantasy fiction: the hero must know the villain’s name in order to disarm him. In this case, a free person must decide for him or herself by which name they will know the world, and let the world know them.
This was an odd journey for me. I appreciate this book very much and particularly its philosophy. The idea that freedom isn’t free for everyone, and that it is indeed different for everyone at any point in his life, is a point well-taken and one that Coates weaves masterfully in and out of this story, from multiple perspectives. But the book is also part of a trend that troubles me. It’s strange for me to feel so conflicted about a novel, but hey, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.