Hiram was born into “tasking”—what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls slavery in this beautiful, wrenching novel—but he has always stood slightly apart from the other people who are “Tasked” on the Virginian estate called Lockless.
The son of an enslaved woman named Rose, Hiram learned early in life that his father was the Lockless master, Howell Walker. Although Hiram worked in the apple orchards and the main house, he had something the other Tasked would never dream of: lessons from the Walker family tutor. But the lessons were no gift. Howell Walker’s plan was to prepare Hiram to spend his life caring for his older half-brother, Maynard, the charmless, dull heir to Lockless. A naturally smart child, Hiram subdued his thirst for knowledge. “I knew what happened to coloreds who were too curious about the world beyond Virginia,” he says.
Driving Maynard home one night from the horse races, Hiram is thinking of nothing but his “desire for an escape from Maynard and the doom of his mastery. And then it came.” Hiram doesn’t know why a strange mist comes up off the river or why the bridge falls away, revealing his long-gone mother dancing.
He later learns this is Conduction, the rare ability to transport oneself on the power of memories. It’s a prized skill that recruiters on the Underground Railroad hope Hiram will put to use for their cause. They move him to Philadelphia, where he is shocked to see for the first time people of all colors mingling freely. He works to harness his gift of Conduction, while still feeling the pull of his people who have been sold and scattered throughout the South.
The Water Dancer confronts our bitter history and its violence and ugliness, which still resonate generations later. Coates’ fierce, thought-provoking essays on race composed We Were Eight Years in Power and the National Book Award winner Between the World and Me. Here he weaves a clear-eyed story that has elements of magic but is grounded in a profoundly simple truth: A person’s humanity is tied to their freedom.
“Breathing,” Hiram says. “I just dream of breathing.”