57 pages • 1 hour readTa-Nehisi Coates
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The Water Dancer is the debut novel of Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist known for his award-winning essay collections on race, his contributions to The Atlantic, and his work on Marvel’s The Black Panther comic book series. A New York Times bestseller and selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, the novel centers on Hiram Walker, a fugitive slave who becomes an agent in the Underground, an organization devoted to the destruction of slavery in the United States during the mid-1800s. With its focus on life after slavery, an alternate historical timeline, and the protagonist’s ability to manipulate time and space, the novel combines elements of the neo-slave narrative and speculative fiction. This study guide is based on the 2019 Penguin Random House print edition.
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In Part 1, Hiram, the Tasked (slave) and son of Howell Walker, miraculously survives driving his master’s coach into the Goose River. His master’s son, Maynard Walker, is killed in the crash, but Hiram survives when a blue door transports him from the water to a family monument on the outskirts of the Howell plantation, Lockless. The blue door is a manifestation of Conduction, a supernatural power that allows its wielder to fold space and time to transport people.
In flashback, Coates reveals Hiram’s early life. When Hiram was a little boy, Howell sold Rose, Hiram’s mother, leaving the boy to be raised by Thena, an enslaved woman who lost her own family. Hiram is a strikingly intelligent boy, so much so that Howell trained him to become the manservant of Maynard. From 12 to 19, Hiram learns that he is superior to his brother in intelligence and character but that his fate is to be a servant to Maynard. Maynard, on the other hand, grows up to be a crude, promiscuous gambler whom none of the local gentry respect. The family’s only hope is to attempt to marry him off to Corrine Quinn, a member of the Quality (the masters).
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At 19, Hiram realizes that he will be sold off like so many of the Lockless slaves if Maynard inherits. Eager to begin his own life, Hiram begins thinking about running away or buying himself. These plans come crashing down when Maynard dies in the coach accident. In the aftermath of the accident, Hiram forms an attachment to Sophia, an enslaved woman who is the concubine of Nathaniel Walker, Howell’s brother. Hiram attempts to run away with Sophia with the help of a local leader of free people of color, but the man betrays Hiram and Sophia to the local slave patrol. Howell sells Hiram to a mysterious man who transports him to Virginia.
In Part 2, Hiram undergoes a dark period during which he spends his time either in a dark pit or being hunted for sport by low whites. This time breaks him, but it ends when the strange power that he accessed during the accident on the Goose manifests again. Hiram discovers that Corrine is his true purchaser. She explains that she is a power in the Underground, an organization devoted to the destruction of slavery. Hiram is free, but Corrine thinks he can contribute to the Underground with his power.
Hiram learns more about the organization and experiments with his power in the months that follow, but he still can’t control it. He goes to Philadelphia to learn more about the Underground. While helping Harriet “Moses” Tubman—the only other living person known to have the ability to Conduct—liberate her family during a mission, Hiram learns that Conduction requires powerful memories and water to work; his inability to remember his mother may be at the root of his inability to control his power.
In Part 3, Hiram returns to Lockless, which is on the verge of bankruptcy and may lead to Howell selling Sophia or Thena. Hiram becomes a spy for the Underground but to all appearances is there to serve as his father’s head servant. Hiram finally learns how to control his power: He recovers a shell necklace that contains his memories of his mother. When he puts it on, he uses these memories and the feelings attached to them to Conduct. He frees Thena by Conducting her to Philadelphia. Corrine buys Lockless to cover Howell’s debts and turns it into an Underground station. Sophia stays behind, and Hiram becomes the Underground’s agent at Lockless.
By Ta-Nehisi Coates