Monday, January 13, 2020
Read by Joe Morton
Published September 2019 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library
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
Ta-Nehisi Coates has impressed me with both Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years In Power. I’m not sure, as a white woman, I’m qualified to say who is or is not an important voice for African Americans but it certain seems to me that Coates is one. He has certainly challenged me look at and think about things differently. I knew, when I saw that he had written a novel, it would be something that would well worth reading. I was not wrong.
I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad as I read The Water Dancer because like Whitehead, Coates has taken a known piece of history and put his own spin on it in a way that ties it directly to the Underground Railroad. In Whitehead’s case, the Underground Railroad was, literally, a railroad that was underground. Coates picks up from the idea that railroads have conductors and Hiram’s power is called “conduction,” a power he will grow to learn allows for people to be transported using their own powerful memories. And Hiram does have memories. Born with a photographic memory that allows him to become an even more valuable asset to the plantation owner who is also his father, Hiram will learn to use that skill to become educated, to recall terrain and routes, and for the handiwork with forging papers that will make him so valuable to the underground railroad.
Coates doesn’t pull any punches regarding the treatment slaves suffered at the hands of what Coates calls “The Quality,” but it is much less graphic than in some other books. I appreciated that – I have seen enough and read enough to understand how horrific the physical damage done to “The Tasked” was. Coates seems equally interested the mental and emotional toll the work, the degradation, the fear, and the loss of family took on the enslaved. For example, in one chapter, as the railroad is bringing some men north, they stop at the men’s freed parents’ place to rest and eat. The men’s father brings food to them but never looks at the men and later moves with them for part of their journey blindfolded so, if asked later, he can honestly say he never saw them. He gives up what is likely to be his last chance to see his own sons because of fear. It is every bit as hard to imagine having to live like that as it is to imagine the physical abuse.
Coates doesn’t end his story with his characters making it North and he wants readers to understand that even making it North didn’t mean a black man or woman was safe. And he portrays the Underground Railroad in a way I’ve rarely read – as much as it was an humanitarian effort, there were many ways it had to be handled as a business. There were surely differing opinions about how things should be handled. And, in Coates’ hands, choices have had to be made in order to protect the railroad and its operators that felt heartless. Given the source material he was working with, I can’t help but think this is historically accurate.
If you choose to read this book, and I hope you do, I highly recommend the audiobook; Joe Morton does an amazing job!