Swirling water

Hiram Walker is a motherless young slave in Virginia, fathered by the lord of a plantation that is clinging to shreds of grace even as the land plays out from overplanting with tobacco, half-brother to the plantation’s  dissolute heir. Hiram dreams of his tenuous inheritance until he gets close to its heart — then sees the reality of hypocrisy, even as he sees the mysterious spirit of his mother and imagines the terror of all the slaves who have been sold down “Natchez-way.” Hiram’s gift of sight is really one of insight, a gift of his ancestors that carried them forward through generations of bondage and that is playing out among his people as surely as the depleted soil of the south. It is what drives Hiram to escape to the false promise of the utopian north, and what he must come to terms with in order to truly see his place in the world.

But Hiram’s gift of sight is as much about listening as it is about seeing. As he stands in the shadows of white landowners, known in the book as The Quality, he observes everything and everyone around him. And as someone who is dismissed as much more than a shadow by the delusional Quality, he becomes someone to whom people tell their stories — stories he remembers and connects to other stories, seeing a larger and larger reality take shape. He also becomes a receptacle of stories of other slaves — those known as The Tasked — and slowly pieces together the things never spoken of directly.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Jouranlism? No. “The Water Dancer” is very much a novel — and a fantastical one at that, made more powerful because it is rooted in the real sins of slavery. The voice is nothing like that Ta-Nehisi Coates brought to “Between the World and Me,” his National Book Award-winning reported memoir on race and history, framed as a book-length letter to his son. (But then, very little of what Coates writes seems like anything else he writes, which includes new episodes of “The Black Panther” and “Captain America” for Marvel Comics, and demonstrates why he was received a MacArthur genius grant.)

Even so, the “gifts” of sight, insight, listening and remembering that Coates bestows on Hiram Walker are the gifts — or maybe just the hard, necessary work — of journalism. Thus the line that caught my notice:

“They told me their stories, gave them to me for keeping, which I did, always listening, always remembering.”

I find it impossible to read “The Water Dancer” outside the context of the racial reckonings of our times. I also think of the stories that weren’t heard or remembered through history, and how that lost space leaves us groping for understanding. It is the gift, and responsibility, of the storytellers — fiction and nonfiction — to carry those stories and share they so they can carry us forward.

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