The Water Dancer Review - What a Beautiful Bore
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published in 2019
While I usually choose my books based on whatever grabs my attention at the bookstore or popular books I see on people’s Instagrams, I love hearing about new books from my close friends. Even though we all have different reading styles, sometimes they introduce me to books I would originally have not even given a second glance. One of my close friends asked me to read The Water Dancer for her because she felt it had a slow start and wanted to know if it was worth the read. Well, good or bad, my interest was officially piqued and I had to get my hands on it!
The Water Dancer begins with Hiram Walker driving a carriage for his brother Maynard off a bridge after seeing an illusion of his mother. We then go back to get some context. Hiram Walker is a slave, who’s mother was sold when he was 9 years old. He has the power of intense memory, except he has lost all memory of his mother when she was taken. He is the result of the owner of the plantation and his mother, making him related to the heir for the plantation, Maynard. He stays with Thena, an older slave who was known to be a bitter and angry woman. Hiram quickly learns she’s not just angry, she’s heartbroken after the death of her husband and all her children being sold after his death. Hiram is special among everyone he meets with his extreme intelligence and memory, causing him to get “special lessons” from Mr. Fields, a friend of the owner’s family. He becomes groomed to eventually become the personal servant for Maynard as the owner worries of his son. We then see back to the night when Hiram is in the carriage with Maynard and learn that Maynard died that night, much to the extreme grief of his father. Maynard’s betrothed, Corrine, continues to visit the father and expresses an interest in taking Hiram.
Hiram is afraid of being sold from one owner to the next and runs away with Sophia, a girl he has feelings for that also works for the family. They are betrayed of their intentions and are caught, arrested, and separated. Hiram is taken to a hole where he is starved before being taken out each night to be hunted by a group of white men as a hunting game. Eventually, he is removed from this and brought to Corrine where it is revealed she works for the “Underground” to help selected slaves escape or work for the Underground as secret agents. She has been watching him for some time after sharing that he was selected since he showed special powers they call “Conduction”. He is unsure but it appears this is linked to his memory. Hiram agrees to work with the Underground as an agent where he forges letters and eventually works in the field to help slaves escape to the North.
After seeing the freedom of slaves in the North, he declares he has seen the “future”. He continues to ask the Underground to help him save Thena and Sophia from his old home. They tell him that they can, but not at this time. They only save select slaves and do not do it based on what people ask. While in Philadelphia, he meets Thena’s daughter who ran away years ago and started a life in the North. This inspires Hiram and Corrine agrees to bring him back to his original home at the plantation. While there, he reconnects with everyone he left behind. While there, he learns more of his power of “conduction” realizing he can use it to help those he left behind to the North. He uses it to reconnect Thena with her daughter and stays behind with Sophia to continue helping the Underground.
Final Rating & Thoughts: 5/10
I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. I have to give this a 5/10 rating because this wasn’t the best book I ever read nor was it the worst. I think it was a very ambitious book and had intentions of being something bigger than what it actually delivered. The “Oprah’s Book Club 2019” emblem also make it seem like if Oprah says it’s good, this book is about to be bomb. But to put it frankly, I found this book to be extremely boring. The Water Dancer doesn’t really have a story in it and feels more like an extremely long poem. It was really difficult to motivate myself to keep turning the page because everything felt like it moved as such a slow pace which never fully paid off. The ending feels like it ended way too soon with all the work that Hiram went through to end up in the same place as where he began without any real changes. I also think the power of “conduction” felt like it got teased from the beginning but was never actually made it clear what that was until the very end of the book. It made it difficult for the character to understand why he didn’t use it in the end to save himself, Sophia, and her daughter. The main characters who saved him did it because they felt he had the power of conduction, but always told him not to use it which made me wonder why they ever seemed to care if they didn’t want him doing it. It also felt like it was completely unnecessary and almost ridiculous when added to this story. I won’t even get started on the intense monologues that are all over this book. I am not asking any of these characters a question because they will go on pages long monologues telling their stories. It is meant to add more exposition and understanding of these characters but don’t ever feel like they are woven into the story successfully.
That being said, the book itself and the stories told are written like pure poetry. During the monologues especially, each one reads like it should be its own individual poem. The author did a terrific job of describing everything in the story that it often feels like you can see, hear, and smell what he’s writing about. I also think that the individual stories of a lot of the characters were extremely powerful and specific scenes such as Hiram’s first time at a black-owned bakery in Philadelphia spoke mountains more than the entire story. He really captured the specific traits and thoughts of each character to make everything they did or say feel true to character. However, this isn’t enough for me to justify recommending The Water Dancer. I think the author had beautiful writing and terrific characters, but the story itself and how it moved forward just didn’t work.