Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Water Dancer

Title:  The Water Dancer
Author:  Ta-Nehisi Coates
Publication Information:  One World. 2019. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0399590595 / 978-0399590597

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life, and though there were other bridges spanning the river Goose, they would have bound her and brought her across this one, because this was the bridge that fed into the turnpike that twisted its way through the green hills and down the valley before bending in one direction, and that direction was south."

Favorite Quote:  "They knew our names and they knew our parents. But they did not know us. They had no notion of our ultimate aims and desires. They were entranced by our songs, but they could never know the deeper meaning, because not knowing was essential to their power. To see a child right from under its mother, you must only know that mother in the thinnest way possible. To strip a man down, condemn him to be beaten, flayed alive, then anointed with salt-water, you cannot feel him the way you feel your own. You cannot understand him as human.  You cannot see yourself in him, lest your hadn't be stayed, and your hand must never be stayed, because the moment it is, the Tasked will see that you see them and thus see yourself. In that moment of profound understanding, you are all done because you cannot rule as is needed."

Hiram Walker is a slave with extraordinary powers. This book is his journey to freedom - literal freedom, freedom as he reconciles with the memories of his childhood, freedom as he learns to acknowledge and use the gift he has been given, and freedom that comes from enabling and ensuring the freedom of others. From enslaved North Carolina to the North and back again and yet again.

Through Hiram's story, the book tells the story of a time and place and a reckoning of the dark history of our own nation. It is a history that must be remembered and acknowledged and accounted for.

That being said, I am truly torn about this book. I wanted to absolutely love this book. I expected to absolutely love it based on my reaction to Between the World and Me by Mr. Coates.

Quality. Low. Tasked. These are the terms used in this book to describe the roles in this story of slavery. The "quality" include both the enslavers and those dedicated to the abolitionist movement. The "low" are of both races, mercenaries looking to get ahead by any means possible. The "tasked" are the slaves. Slavery is "the task." Why the terms? The terms are memorable because they are so often repeated in the book. Then again, why not call it what it is? So often in real life, history is given a spin based on the terms used. Is there a further meaning? I look for one but do not discover it.

As with Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, this book also introduces magical realism. The Underground Railroad included a literal railroad. Th book includes the idea of "conduction" in that a person can jump time and place. In both books, the "magic" introduces an element into the story the pulls it far from the history into fiction. I don't really understand why. The history is a brutal one. Why mitigate by suggesting there is magical solution if only the right people can be found.

All historical fiction is just that - fiction. The fiction label allows the history to be massaged into a compelling story. However, this history itself is so compelling that it needs no embellishment especially not one based in magic. The embellishment in many ways diminishes the history by introducing an idea completely unbelievable into a history that must be believed and remembered. I am left wondering why.

These concerns aside, aspects of the writing pull me right into the middle of the story, such that I cry and feel every emotion along with the characters. I find myself highlighting thought after thought because it speaks to me. That is where the history being told is found:
  • "For it is not simply that you are captured by slavery but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savaged..."
  • "The tree of our family was parted - branches here, roots there - parted for their lumber."
  • "Someone was inspecting me, I had adjusted to it by then, and that alone is the worst of it - that a man could feel his violation as natural."
That is the history that speaks to me in this book and gives it its power - the power of remembrance.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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