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The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Literary fiction

The Water Dancer

We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Ta-Nehisi Coates, on your first book!

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Quick take

A brutal reality with a touch of magic. Take your time with this somber, profound, and rigorous read.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SlowRead

    Slow build

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Cerebral


  • Illustrated icon, Icons_Serious


Illustrated icon, Icon_VeryChallenging_Indicator

Challenging read

This is a nonlinear book with complex writing and a nontraditional plot structure. Read if you like to dig into rigorous novels with numerous concepts and characters.

Why I love it

Casey Gerald
Author, There Will Be No Miracles Here

I am a descendant of enslaved black Americans; someone whose mother disappeared, for a time, when I was young; and, as a memoirist, I’m a writer who remembers for a living. For these reasons, I was in tears by the ninth page of The Water Dancer. What kept me turning the page was the joy I found in witnessing a story I thought I knew, told in a way I’d never seen it told before.

The novel follows Hi, a young man in the throes of slavery in Virginia, who yearns to be free and, increasingly, is willing to pay the cost to do so. When his escape leads him from the plantation to the headquarters of an underground resistance, Hi finds himself on a quest to remember his past—not simply as an elegy, but as a way of conjuring a magical ability that will help him reach his destination.

In heartbreaking and beautiful language, Coates takes us beyond the brass tacks of an escape-from-slavery narrative. Not only do we witness Hi’s journey toward freedom, we also witness his journey to reclaim an inner life that has been plundered by slavery, that Peculiar(ly evil) Institution. As one of Hi’s early caretakers warns, “And though it hurt sometime, you cannot forget … You cannot forget.” With The Water Dancer, Coates helps us to remember. This is no easy read, but like so much of Coates’s work, it is vital. I am grateful.

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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 utopic 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.

This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved.

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Get an early look from the first pages of The Water Dancer.

Member thoughts

All (5379)
All (5379)
Love (2804)
Like (2071)
Dislike (504)
5671 ratings
  • 49% Love
  • 37% Like
  • 9% Dislike
  • Doral , FL

    I love to read books that change minds, hearts and lives and Mr. Coates has surely done that for me with The Water Dancer. This is a book I will never forget and will recommend this to everyone. ❤️❤️❤️

  • Seattle, WA

    I still can’t speak this was such a wrenching and incredibly beautiful story. It’s one book with its beautiful dust jacket that you put in plain sight because you know you’ll want to read it again. ????

  • North miami beach, FL

    What a book. I love how they keep the mistery until the end of how important his journey really was for the slaves. I genuinely couldn’t stop reading this book it’s so well written and kept me hooked.

  • Springfield, MO

    I was really hopeful this was going to be a top 5 2019 BOTY finalist, it’s amazing! The Water Dancer is gorgeous and heart-wrenching, it’s historically enlightening and full of love. Do not hesitate!

  • West Hollywood, CA

    It’s a slow build, but there are moments of absolute beauty in the buildup. And it’s filled with some of the most beautiful sentences. I stopped and reread so many passages just to live in them again!

  • Hubert , NC

    The author was so skilled in telling this story that it feels more like nonfiction, including the “magical” elements. I held my breath, i sobbed, i shouted with joy with these people. Extraordinary!

  • Atlanta, GA

    The first few chapters drag bc challenging prose just for the sake of it, but afterward, there’s an incredible investment in this character and I felt I also learned so much about this horrible time.

  • Aurora, CO

    LOVE THIS AUTHOR. The way ideas are introduced, the way settings are described. The construction of the story plot. I will read any/everything Ta-Nehisi Coates puts out, and I’m glad this was my intro

  • Iowa Colony , TX

    I absolutely loved The Water Dancer. The story was captivating and moving. The pain and deception experienced by the characters is portrayed in a way that twinges the reader’s heart. BRAVO Mr. Coates!

  • North Hampton, NH

    I needed a minute with this one. I initially had it marked as Liked, but shifted to Loved. I think about this book and the characters constantly. Coates’ writing is beautiful and gripping. Incredible

  • Bedford , IN

    I absolutely loved The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. What a wonderful story of what it truly meant to be enslaved and what freedom actually brought to the beautiful people in Coates’ novel world.

  • Star, NC

    This is truly an ambitious novel. Ta-Nehisi Coats took real history and melded it with magical realism…or, could it have been psychosis caused by reality? Either way, it reads like beautiful prose.

  • Marshfield, MO

    A book that I couldn’t put down and held my attention until the very last page. The Water Dancer led some insights to how slaves lived and some culture they might have shared. Definitely a must read!

  • Killeen, TX

    Definitely took me to a different time period. Exciting, sad in some areas, and entertaining. It’s a large book for me and my time set to read, but I found myself making additional time for this one.

  • Bellingham, WA

    First, I love Ta-Nehisi Coates. So, when I saw he’d written a novel, I was all over it. This book felt like Zora Neale Hurston’s (They’re Eyes Were Watching God) and Toni Morrison’s (Beloved).

  • Staten Island, NY

    Beautiful writing of a deeply moving story. The characters are, for the most part, so very noble. There are some low characters too I really think that this is a book that will be very well acclaimed

  • Los Angeles, CA

    It would require much, much more than 200 letters to adequately pay proper deference to the impressive tapestry of literature that Mr Coates has woven. Give yourself the gift of reading this book!!!

  • Holladay, UT

    Months later, this story still sticks with me. I love Coates’s poetic, lyrical writing style and how he was able to counterbalance the horrific ugliness of slavery with the moments of joy and hope.

  • Lamesa, TX

    A beautiful and lyrical novel about a terrible time in America's past. Love the perspective I gained from reading this novel. It was slow in the beginning but I couldn't put it down once I got going.

  • Eureka, CA

    This book is beautifully written and complex. I love that the author wove in real characters from history and gave them such meaningful and eloquent words to say. Important, must-read. A little slow.

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