The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

1. First lines 2. Published 2019 Penguin Random House and Penguin Australia 3. Negro types. By J.F. Horrabin [Public Domain] via Wikimedia 4. A woodcut image of Harriet Tubman By woodcut artist not listed. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia
The Quality, the Tasked and the Low: Masters, slaves and low whites.

Hiram Walker is captive to a tobacco plantation owner in Virginia in the mid-19th century. He has been orphaned and is haunted with the loss of the memory of his mother, who had been sold and taken away from him. He joins the network of agents working to liberate his fellow captives.

“Slavery is every day longing. Is being born into a world of forbidden rituals and tantalizing untouchables. The land around you, the clothes you hem, the biscuits you bake. You bury the longing because you know where it must lead.”

“And I saw them coming up on railroads, barges, river-runner, skiff, and bribery coach. Coming up on horseback over hard snow and March melting ice. They were fitted in ladies’ dresses and came up, in gentry clothes and came up, in dental bandage and came up, in sling and came up, in rags not worth the laundry lady’s washing, but came up. They bribed low whites and stole horses. Crossed the Potomac in wind, storm, and darkness. Came up, as I had, driven by the remembrance of mothers or wives sold south for the high crime of standing contrary before lust. They came up devoured by frost. They came up with tales of hard drinkers and overseers who took glee in applying the lash. They came up stowed like coffee in boats, braving turpentine, scarred and singed by salt-water anointing, guilt-racked for fining themselves so broken that they should bow before their own flogging, for having held their brothers down under the master’s lash.”

“It may be hard to believe now, in these dark days, but there was no “nigger car.” Why would there be one? The Quality kept their Tasked close the way a lady keeps her clutch, closer even, for this was a time in history when the most valuable thing a man could own, in all of America, was another man.”

~Quotes from “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
  • Vox “Ta-Nehisi Coates is a great writer. His new book The Water Dancer is not a great novel. Ta-Nehisi Coates is not quite there yet. He doesn’t have the kind of command over the novel as a medium that will let him meld disparate genres together; he doesn’t seem to care about his characters as people rather than as devices he can use to convey ideas; he doesn’t really understand how to keep a plot moving. What Coates can do — and what he does better than nearly anyone — is build an argument that resounds with clarity and moral urgency, and craft a sentence beautiful enough to take your breath away. It will be incredible to see what he can do with those tools a few books from now.
  • National Public Radio: “At its best, The Water Dancer is a melancholic and suspenseful novel that merges the slavery narrative with the genres of fantasy or quest novels. But moments of great lyricism are matched with clichés and odd narrative gaps, and the mechanics of plot sometimes seem to grind and stall.
  • New York Times: “Coates’s novel sometimes feels as if it were written quickly, and it has the virtues and defects of that apparent spontaneity. Where his nonfiction runs narrow and quite deep, “The Water Dancer” mostly runs wide and fairly shallow. It’s more interested in movement than in the intensities of sustained perception.”

Other edition.

Awards: Oprah’s Book Club Pick

Author website: Ta-Nehisi Coates

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