Friday, August 23, 2019

Ta-Nehisi Coates' THE WATER DANCER--mythic "coming of age" in slavery has unexpected light

I read that Ta-Nehisi Coates was once a student of both Tony Morrison and E.L. Doctorow. These two as influences make sense in Coates' THE WATER DANCER, a novel that weaves African spiritual tradition with the cultural annhilation that was the slave economy in Virginia and the rest of the South. The darkness of this infamy has an unexpected light in this mythic "coming of age" novel, a kind of awe for the mystery of life.

THE WATER DANCER is a lyrical first-hand narrative of  plantation life in Virginia in the 1800s, when slave families were destroyed on whim or the business interests of owners.  As loved ones were sold down "Natchez Way" in Texas and other destinations west, those born to the "task" suffered husbands, wives, children disappearing often with no warning or forwarding address. The threat was enough to quell outer rebellion, while those so bereaved took comfort where it could be found--knowing it was transient..

The narrator, Hiriam Walker cannot remember the face of his disappeared mother but knows she told him that his father was the "Massa." She seemed not to like him but young Hiriam is proud his father is the master of the plantation. And, while working in the fields he's recognized by his father, who flips him a rough totemic coin. He'd heard of Hiriam's clever tricks, based on his ability to remember anything he's seen or read (a skill he must conceal).

When Hiriam learns he is to move from the ramshackle slave street to the big house, he's thrilled,  seeing it as his first step to his aspirations. He hears but doesn't believe the warning of  the woman who raised him, that the house people were not his real family. Hiriam's values are split between the estate he sees as his destiny and the warm loving slave society that nurtures him. He gets an upper room with books, a tutor and is mesmerized by learning. But his comfort remains in the subterranean slave life, literally under the house.

Hiram's shockeed, when his education is suddenly aborted right before his long desired first astronomy lesson. But his education is more than sufficient for his task, serving as man servant to his white and legitimate half brother. To Hiriam's chagrin, the destined master of the estate is a childish doofus with little respect for his class, "the Quality"  of Virginia. Hiriam must save him from his rash impulses and profound ignorance. He is determined to uphold the behavioral standards of the "Quality" as opposed to the low whites, who do their bidding and bully slaves.

The ability Hiriam was born with is no match for the other's born privilege. Yet  he's got access to books  so life under this "task"is bearable. But as time moves on, and many slaves are sold to compensate for the increasingly poor tobacco crops, Hiriam knows his father could also sell him away like his mother. Though he realizes he's valued for his intelligence and judgment, his mother is a faceless trauma he cannot resolve.

Then Hiriam meets beautiful Sophia, the consort of his uncle. Though allowed more independence than a field worker, she runs "hot and cold" with him at first, bitterly aware she cannot command the use of her body. Their relationship proves radical, transforming and dangerous. What happens when a slave can no longer live under the task?  For Hiriam, his "fall" from privilege, means degradation and abuse; the loss of everything he loved, all that defined him.

Yet this destruction leads him to the reality underlying the tasked slaves of the South--the existence of the Underground Railroad. Here Hiriam's abiltiies prove invaluable and he grows into his ultimate task. Along the way, he meets the invincable Harriet Tubman and learns the secret of his mother's disappearance and his own startling transcendent powers. And, like a ballad, where the past intersects with the future, THE WATER DANCER travels to the free land--Philadelphia, where slaves could live as free men--if they avoided capture by preying bounty hunters.

I have read the stories of Singer, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978 for works like The Magician of Lublin. What Singer did for his massacred people, forced to flee at the whims of governments, was provide vibrant stories and myths from lost homelands. In a similar vein, Coates' novel celebrates myth, memory and mystery.

From a Virginian tobacco plantation to the secret lore of African kings and the spycraft of the  Underground railroad, this is an enchanting novel. It's full of truth about the human evil of men, strange unexpected deliverance, and the joy of  true companions. Ultimately, THE WATER DANCER explores the coming of age of a biracial boy in a nation becoming indivisible.


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