Book Review: The Water Dancer
“Slavery is everyday long, is being born into a world of forbidden victuals 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”
I knew going into this book that it was going to be heavy (in content and prose style), and indeed it was. It even has a warning on @bookofthemonth that it’s a “very challenging read” due to the complex writing!
SUMMARY: 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 idealistic 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. Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.
Briefly, the plot is about a young man in Virginia who stumbles upon the Underground Railroad and is enlisted because of his magical power of “Conduction” (the ability to transport people from one location to another). Despite the welcome elements of magical realism, the story is very much grounded in the brutal reality of that horrifying time in American history. It’s a hard read (I found myself physically repulsed and close to tears on multiple occasions), but I would argue it’s a necessary read.
The book is fairly epic in its scope, spanning multiple decades, and it spends a lot of time fleshing out its characters (lots of tangents related to various characters’ pasts and relationships). For the most part I was on board for the writing style. It’s profound, intricate, and beautiful most of the time. However, 400 pages of it can get taxing, and occasionally it leaned into ponderous territory. I’m a quick reader but it took me a long time to get through this book with many breaks in between.
I may not ever read it again, but overall I still liked the book a lot. The uncompromising look at history and the realities of slavery, the detailed characters and settings, and the powerful themes of love, loss, and memory all make it worth reading!