I have never met Ta-Nehisi Coates though he was living in Paris at the same time I was. He was a fellow at the American Library in Paris and wrote ‘Between Me and World’ while there. That book went on to win the National Book award and changed his life. In his words,” it was like being hit by a Mack truck.”
I was sent an advance copy of ‘We were Eight Years in Power’, his 2017 book of eight articles previously written for the Atlantic during the Obama Presidency. I reviewed that book as highly as I could. I then went backwards and read his earlier books. I watched many videos of him on You Tube and always felt sad that I hadn’t met him when he was here. I’ve come to like the man in the videos as much as the man who writes such articulate evocative essays. I have always been struck by his use of language, the elegant phrasing in his essays and his easy street vernacular when chatting away with an interviewer.
Now he has written a novel The Water Dancer, his first such book. He has adopted an almost mystical, mythical style of storytelling that, to me, is completely different than anything before. How does one write about something so heartbreaking as the treatment of slaves, the separation of families, of couples, the courage of so many people putting their lives on the line to rescue others from “the coffin” (slavery in the deep south), the life of Harriet Tubman and all the stolen moments, memories and stories of an entire race of people.
This is the story of Hiram Walker, born to a black mother whom he can’t remember and a white plantation owner. Hi narrates his unexpected life from five years old when he thinks he lost his mother to his late twenties. When he has flashes on his mother, it is of her dancing with her sister, Emily, feet pounding the floor, bodies bonelessly swaying without shame in complete abandon like the water dances in the river. Water is a character in this enthralling telling of a boy first just wanting to remember, then wanting to be free and then wanting to understand.
He lives his teenage years in his father’s house underneath in the Warrens, he tries to escape, is captured and emprisoned. In time, he makes it north and becomes part of the Underground railroad. As he works with the other dedicated members to free brothers and sisters, literally, family takes on a new meaning to him and drives him in ways he never could have conceived.
I don’t pretend to even begin to know what it is like to be Black in America, what the word Freedom means to a man enslaved for real or by what we white people put on them, what it must be like to watch the US going backwards in this Age of White Supremacy. This elegantly written book that seems more dreamlike than factual has brought me as close to “understanding”, to “feeling” the losses that never end, as anything I’ve ever read.
My admiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates and his many forms of language continues to grow. This is a book, I will read again.
The Water Dancer A Novel Historical Fiction Random House Publishing Group – Random House One World