Memory  /  Book Review

An Ongoing Battle

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s narratives of freedom.

Coates’s latest book, The Water Dancer, is his first novel, a work of historical reconstruction that joins the growing body of creative and scholarly works intended to fill this gap. Told from the perspective of Hiram Walker, an enslaved man born in Elm County, Virginia, who eventually joins the Underground Railroad, the novel seeks to capture aspects of black experience difficult to access in archives. In this way, it descends from a large body of fictional slave narratives that came into being in response to William Styron’s 1968 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which projected then-common racial stereotypes onto the history of slavery. Troubled by his portrait of enslaved men, Sherley Anne Williams in Dessa Rose, Ernest Gaines in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and several other authors challenged Styron’s novel by writing their own, which are rooted in visions of black history that do not rely on racial caricatures—a genre that the literary critic Ashraf Rushdy has examined in Neo-Slave Narratives. Just as these earlier novels projected black people’s views of themselves onto a past that often obscured them, so too does Coates aim to recover black experiences—the sense of pain and hope, submission and resistance—lost to history.

To capture this experience, Coates supplements realism with the techniques of fantasy and the metaphorical powers of myth. Midway through the novel, Hiram discovers that he has a magic gift: Upon entering a body of water and recalling a deep-seated memory, he can conduct—or teleport—himself to a different body of water that he has seen. Because of this supernatural skill, members of the Underground Railroad recruit him to their cause, and Hiram learns of other enslaved people who have magically freed themselves. This list includes such historical personages as Harriet Tubman, another conductor, and Henry “Box” Brown, who mailed himself across the country in a wooden crate to gain his liberty. The best way to understand enslaved people freeing themselves from such a dominant, repressive system, The Water Dancer implies, is to view such feats as fantasy.

For Coates, the magical and the fantastic are also a perfect way to explore something that slavery and its violences obscured: how black people created families and a broader social life despite being trapped in a system that sought to prevent both. While the novel chronicles the fracturing of kin units by slave owners, it simultaneously follows enslaved people who use magic to reunite them.