shirley yin

The Water Dancer reviewed

December 8, 2019

(note: abundant spoilers for The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates)

I am a huge fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ non-fiction writing, and was pleasantly surprised to hear that he had released a novel. I found the prose beautifully written, with many lyrical passages and clever turns of phrases. The writing style felt quite political at times (given that this is a book about slavery, and that all writing is political) – sometimes Ta-Nehisi Coates, the essayist and Atlantic writer, shines through, and not always in a good way.

And where was I now running to? What is North but a word? (p. 144)

I found the themes and symbolism were interesting and worthy of discussion, but at the same time underdeveloped and heavy-handed in places. Some narrative devices felt too on the nose and gave the book a YA vibe – for example, the “Conductor” of the Railroad is literally named Harriet Tubman and nicknamed “Moses”. The protagonist is named Hiram Walker.

It is interesting to contrast Coates’ implementation of the Underground Railroad with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad – there, the Railroad is a literal railroad and served as a “destination” of sorts in the protagonist’s journey towards freedom, but here the Railroad is the journey. The community of the Railroad and the act of transporting people (manually through safe houses, or via Conduction) is just as important, and “arriving” at the Railroad is only the beginning. (This is also more in line with the actual Underground Railroad.)

Another theme that was interesting to me is the power of storytelling and preserving history, but also its vulnerability. From our modern perspective, letters, stories, and accounts of people are valuable resources, but at the time, secrecy was obviously important for the physical safety of everyone involved in the Railroad. There are several mentions of record-keeping documents of escaped slaves “falling into the wrong hands” and the danger that would put people in. Given that losing one’s history or memory is a kind of loss, it is interesting to think about gaining freedom and agency at the price of secrecy. Vulnerability also surfaces in a literal sense, as doing the Conductions take a lot of energy from Harriet, and leave her unconscious for a stretch of time afterwards.

“To remember, friend,” she said. “For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge for the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.” (p. 271)

“Because, to tell a man a story, you gotta know how it end,” said Harriet. “I never been to Alabama. Can’t jump to an end I ain’t never seen.” (p. 283)

I found the character of Corinne Quinn in general to be frustrating – she came across as a benevolent saviour, always having a master plan. Her patronizing secrecy, and her attitude of “I wont tell you why we’re doing this but just trust me” is almost a cliche of modern bad leadership. The lecturing sometimes felt too overtly political; for example, the below passage almost reads like something out of one of his Atlantic articles. I think the old writing adage, “show, don’t tell” applies here.

Corinne Quinn was among the most fanatical agents I ever encountered on the Underground. All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave.

(pp. 370-371)

Obviously this is Coates’ debut novel and it would be unfair to compare him to Toni Morrison, or even experienced novelists that aren’t so universally revered, such as Colson Whitehead. Although I wanted to like The Water Dancer more than I actually did (isn’t it all the more frustrating when something is almost great?) I will still be anticipating and reading everything Ta-Nehisi Coates produces in the future.