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The Water Dancer: a powerful story of slavery and the underground railroad - with a splash of magic

The Water Dancer book cover on art image

The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Genre: Historical Fiction, Magical Realism

Oprah's Book Club 2019

Published 2019, 403 pages

What a remarkable first fiction book. This is the first novel written by Coates who has 3 well-praised nonfiction books to his name. Beautifully written prose with dialog that feels so authentic. Slightly formal speech patterns yet with bad grammar which felt 'of the south' in that time. The novel is another entry in the historical fiction field about slavery and the underground railroad, but this one feels so much more ...... real somehow, in spite of being full of magic. It was the writing more than the story, I think. I love this reflection on his young love:

"I do not claim to have loved Sophia then, though I thought I did. I was young and love to me was a fuse that was lit, not a garden that was grown. Love was not concerned with any deep knowledge of its object, of their wants and dreams, but mainly with the joy felt in their presence and the sickness felt in their departure."

It's told in the first person and as Hiram comes to manhood and tries to deal with his memories, the loss of his mom, and the relationship with his white father; this book tackles his feelings, his introspection on his station in life and his realization of his restrictions. Maybe that's what really grabbed me about this - the way it made me feel some of the devastation of slavery as more than just a mental acknowledgement.

"The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, or strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them - we had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives."

It's a little slow in some areas as the writing becomes more thoughtful or philosophical. I found it interesting that Coates chose to rename slaves and masters as "Tasked" and "Quality". And yet when he wrote of the insights Hiram had about the actual qualities of the Quality, it was through a very clear and interesting lens.

Similar to Underground Railroad, this book has an element of magical realism to it that was more 'magical' than in Underground Railroad. A power tied to strong memories give Hiram and Harriet Tubman the rare and special ability to transport people long distances and I found that more engaging than the actual underground train in Railroad. Last year I also read Underground Airlines, an alternate history where the civil war never happened. That one is perhaps the most unusual imagining of the three, but this is my favorite telling. I really liked the writing style.

"To remember, friend. For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is the bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom."

This book would be a great option for book clubs - a zillion things to talk about. Great characters, strong story, emotionally engaging - highly recommended.

Also, it fulfilled some reading challenge categories - see which ones in the top title box. Follow my challenge progress in the Challenges tab in the top page menu.

Reading Challenge: #Popsugar20 (same name as a movie but topic unrelated);

#ModernMrsDarcy20 (debut novel); #BooklistQueen20 (debut novel) Check my progress in the Challenge tab at the top of the page.

Have you read any of the three books mentioned in this post? Which was your favorite? Why? Have you read something else in the same vein that you'd recommend?

photos via pexels

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