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The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Literary fiction

The Water Dancer

Debut

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

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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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

    Cerebral

  • Illustrated icon, Icons_Serious

    Serious

Synopsis

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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Free sample

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

I.

I.

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.

I had always avoided that bridge, for it was stained with the remembrance of the mothers, uncles, and cousins gone Natchez-way. But knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.

And she was patting juba on the bridge, an earthen jar on her head, a great mist rising from the river below nipping at her bare heels, which pounded the cobblestones, causing her necklace of shells to shake. The earthen jar did not move; it seemed almost a part of her, so that no matter her high knees, no matter her dips and bends, her splaying arms, the jar stayed fixed on her head like a crown. And seeing this incredible feat, I knew that the woman patting juba, wreathed in ghostly blue, was my mother.

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Why I love it

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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Member ratings (6,972)

  • angelica m.

    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. ❤️❤️❤️

  • Melanie A.

    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. ????

  • Morgan H.

    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!

  • Isaac W.

    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!

  • Anto E.

    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.

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