The best writers — the best storytellers, in particular — possess the enchanting, irresistible power to take the reader somewhere else. Ta-Nehisi Coates imagines the furthest reach of that power as a means to transcend borders and bondage in “The Water Dancer,” a spellbinding look at the impact of slavery that uses meticulously researched history and hard-won magic to further illuminate this country’s original sin.
For Coates, whose epistolary quasi-memoir “Between the World and Me” won a National Book Award in 2015, this trip to the past was foreshadowed in his vividly drawn examination of what it means to be black in today’s United States. “America understands itself as God’s handiwork,” he writes in “Between the World and Me,” which is structured as a letter to his teenage son, “but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.”
For “The Water Dancer,” his first novel, Coates ventures into the perspective of Hiram Walker, a slave born under “the Task” who serves as the story’s narrator and fulcrum.
Hiram is the mixed-race son of the owner of a Virginia tobacco plantation called Lockless and a mother who was tragically sold away when he was 5. Without giving too much away, Hiram has a near-photographic memory about all but the most intimate details of his past, and it is that hidden trauma that could fuel a supernatural power.
In capturing Hiram’s voice, Coates uses an elaborate, richly drawn impression of the language of the time, which is somewhere between 1850 and the dawn of the Civil War. Though the beneficiary of a steady supply of free labor, Lockless is in steady decline because of soil mismanagement and the greed of its owners.
In depicting the fall of the plantation, Coates provides something of a microcosm of the nation. “Eat up the land, then keep going,” one character muses about the plantation’s future. “Someday they gonna run out of land, and I don’t know what they’ll do then.”
The plantation and nearby towns are at the volatile intersection of three classes — the Tasked (slaves), the landowners (the Quality) and the low whites — that take any means to impress the Quality. Coates draws a portrait of the cruel, coldly effective apparatus that grew around slavery, especially in its efforts to camouflage those so intricately tied to its day-to-day operation.
“There were dumbwaiters that made the sumptuous supper appear from nothing, levers that seemed to magically retrieve the right bottle of wine hidden deep in the manor’s bowels,” he writes, examining a practice that echoes exploitative labor practices of the present. “Because those charged with emptying the chamber-pot must be hidden even more than the chamber-pot itself.”
As Hiram grows older, he falls in love with Sophie, another of the plantation’s Tasked, and that realization feeds his inevitable drive to pursue freedom. Slavery “paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages,” Coates writes, “and at that moment of revelation, of understanding, running is not a thought, not even as a dream, but a need, no different than the need to flee a burning house.”
Passages like these in “The Water Dancer” shine a light from the past through the present. The book, however, offers much more than a relatively easy indictment of history. Exploring the loaded issues of race and slavery have became yet more fuel for today’s culture wars, but an underlying message of liberation through the embrace of history forms the true subject of “The Water Dancer.”
While Hiram’s first escape attempt is unsuccessful, he grows increasingly aware of a facility with Conduction — a teleportation-like power that manifests through storytelling as a mix of light, water and fog that can carry its users across impossible distances and ultimately to freedom.
Hiram’s potential for Conduction leads him to become involved with the Underground Railroad (known here only as “the Underground”), which is described in richly drawn details that showcase Coates’ meticulous, journalism-forged hand with research.
Hiram is taken to the free Northern city of Philadelphia, where Coates begins blurring the line between reality and fiction as Hiram encounters the real-life slave narratives of Box Brown and Jarm Logue and is taken in by the fictional White Brothers, who were inspired by ex-slave abolitionists William and Peter Still, according to a closing note by Coates. While exposed to fleeting triumphs by the Underground amid a steady supply of tragedy, Hiram soon comes together with the movement’s most powerful force in Moses, a master of Conduction eventually revealed to be American abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
In a pointed, evocative Tubman-led effort to cross the Delaware to free a handful of slaves, Conduction’s power is on display. It arises from Tubman’s detailed, unsparing retelling of personal history, no matter how painful. Tubman’s sermon-like sharing of a horrible personal narrative propels the Underground across impossible distances and back. This forms a particularly poignant superpower for a people whose history and culture were broken apart by slavery.
“Memory is the chariot and memory is the way,” Coates’ Tubman later assures Hiram as he begins to understand his own powers. “Memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.”
But even as Hiram feels the pull to use his powers to return to Lockless and find Sophie, “The Water Dancer” again reaches for more than a tidy rescue narrative as Hiram returns home to reconcile what happened to his mother and confront his own past.
Using a touch of magic to explain an effort of unimaginable terror and courage in escaping slavery, “The Water Dancer” at times feels like a spiritual companion to Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Underground Railroad.” But instead of imagining a literal railroad in place of a treacherous, multi-stop effort to pull innocent people from the depths of slavery, Coates envisions the transcendent potential in acknowledging and retelling stories of trauma from the past as a means out of darkness. With recent family separations at the U.S. border, this message feels all the more timely.
“I choose the muck of this world,” Hiram tells Sophia in accepting the pain that comes with a world forged by tragedies both personal and sociopolitical. “I choose the everything.”
As America of today continues to struggle with the muck of its past, we should all be so lucky.
Penguin Random House: 416 pages., $28
Barton is a former Times staff writer now based in Portland, Ore.