The Water Dancer is a historical fiction book that dances on the edge of the fantastic. The narrative guides the reader through the childhood and early life of Hiram, the enslaved son of a white master (the “quality”) and a “tasking” (enslaved) woman in his possession. Early on in the book Hiram witnesses the death of his half brother, the heir to his father’s estate and finds that the clear cut life of acting subservient to the master of the house while running the plantation behind the scenes has evaporated. The narrative follows Hiram’s journey through choosing freedom, even if it means leaving everything (except Sophia, the woman he loves) behind.
The writing is lyrical and flows beautifully. The story is easy to follow, yet portions of the book feel poetic. The dialogue of both the “tasked” and the “quality” feels natural and lends dignity without feeling like a caricature of southern or enslaved accents.
The characters are complex with realistic motivations. Just like real humans, many characters are conflicted about what they want and change and grow and regress for understandable reasons. The enslaved people have agency, while there are abolitionists who aid those who run to freedom, they are there to help, not to act as the heroes of the story (Though there are some that fill that purpose at various points of the story.)
Just as in real life, there are few characters whos motivations and actions are purely good or purely evil. Even if the audience immediately sees the horror of what some of the enslavers do, it takes Hiram time to, and we still see them as complicated people who do truly despicable, unjustifiable things.
Personally, I think that the fantastical elements were woven in in a way that made sense thematically with the story. There might be some who would prefer the actions of a certain historical person who makes an appearance to have been mundanely done through raw grit and courage rather than mystical means, but for a fictional story it works.
A gripping tale of a man’s journey to freedom and meaning. The author does a fantastic job of balancing the horrors of slavery with telling a story that is enjoyable to read with characters worth rooting for.
I listened to this in audiobook form via the Digital Library of Illinois. The narrator is Joe Morton. Mr. Morton adds another layer of enjoyment to the book with his rich singing voice that he lends to the various work calls and chants.