The Water Dancer

One World: Random. Sept. 2019. 432p. ISBN 9780399590597. $28; ;.
DEBUT This ambitious fiction debut by social critic Coates (Between the World and Me) features a protagonist with what might be called superpowers, not surprising from the man who brought The Black Panther back to life. Son of an enslaved African American woman and her owner, Hiram Walker grew up with conditional freedom, charged with being his slow-witted white brother Maynard’s handler. The book begins with Maynard’s death and focuses mainly on Hiram’s efforts to piece together what happened that fateful night and how he himself escaped Maynard’s fate. In passages sometimes weighty with philosophizing, Hiram becomes involved with the Virginia Underground Railroad, discovering that he has a skill called conduction that allows him to transport runaway slaves, as well as his loved ones, to safety in the free states. The two vital components of conduction are water and memories, and like most of us, Hiram has some memories he’d rather not revisit.
VERDICT Coates cites Toni Morrison and E.L. Doctorow as huge influences in writing this book, and the scope and seriousness on display here would make them both proud. The author can be didactic, unable to escape the weight of his message, but when he allows the action to unfold, the story becomes a work of wonder. Essential for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, 3/4/19.]
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