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The Water Dancer (Oprah's Book Club)
Cover of The Water Dancer (Oprah's Book Club)
The Water Dancer (Oprah's Book Club)
A Novel
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#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • OPRAH’S BOOK CLUB PICK • From the National Book Award–winning author of Between the World and Me, a boldly conjured debut novel about a magical gift, a devastating loss, and an underground war for freedom.
“This potent book about America’s most disgraceful sin establishes [Ta-Nehisi Coates] as a first-rate novelist.”—San Francisco Chronicle
IN DEVELOPMENT AS A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE • Adapted by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kamilah Forbes, produced by MGM, Plan B, and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films
NOMINATED FOR THE NAACP IMAGE AWARD • NAMED ONE OF PASTE’S BEST NOVELS OF THE DECADE • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Time • NPR • The Washington PostChicago TribuneVanity Fair • Esquire Good Housekeeping Paste • Town & Country • The New York Public Library • Kirkus Reviews Library Journal


Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her—but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.
So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.
This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.
Praise for The Water Dancer
“Ta-Nehisi Coates is the most important essayist in a generation and a writer who changed the national political conversation about race with his 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me. So naturally his debut novel comes with slightly unrealistic expectations—and then proceeds to exceed them. The Water Dancer . . . is a work of both staggering imagination and rich historical significance. . . . What’s most powerful is the way Coates enlists his notions of the fantastic, as well as his fluid prose, to probe a wound that never seems to heal. . . . Timeless and instantly canon-worthy.”Rolling Stone
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • OPRAH’S BOOK CLUB PICK • From the National Book Award–winning author of Between the World and Me, a boldly conjured debut novel about a magical gift, a devastating loss, and an underground war for freedom.
“This potent book about America’s most disgraceful sin establishes [Ta-Nehisi Coates] as a first-rate novelist.”—San Francisco Chronicle
IN DEVELOPMENT AS A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE • Adapted by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kamilah Forbes, produced by MGM, Plan B, and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films
NOMINATED FOR THE NAACP IMAGE AWARD • NAMED ONE OF PASTE’S BEST NOVELS OF THE DECADE • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Time • NPR • The Washington PostChicago TribuneVanity Fair • Esquire Good Housekeeping Paste • Town & Country • The New York Public Library • Kirkus Reviews Library Journal


Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her—but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.
So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.
This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.
Praise for The Water Dancer
“Ta-Nehisi Coates is the most important essayist in a generation and a writer who changed the national political conversation about race with his 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me. So naturally his debut novel comes with slightly unrealistic expectations—and then proceeds to exceed them. The Water Dancer . . . is a work of both staggering imagination and rich historical significance. . . . What’s most powerful is the way Coates enlists his notions of the fantastic, as well as his fluid prose, to probe a wound that never seems to heal. . . . Timeless and instantly canon-worthy.”Rolling Stone
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  • From the cover And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life, and though there were other bridges spanning the river Goose, they would have bound her and brought her across this one, because this was the bridge that fed into the turnpike that twisted its way through the green hills and down the valley before bending in one direction, and that direction was south.

    I had always avoided that bridge, for it was stained with the remembrance of the mothers, uncles, and cousins gone Natchez-way. But knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the "down there" of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.

    And she was patting juba on the bridge, an earthen jar on her head, a great mist rising from the river below nipping at her bare heels, which pounded the cobblestones, causing her necklace of shells to shake. The earthen jar did not move; it seemed almost a part of her, so that no matter her high knees, no matter her dips and bends, her splaying arms, the jar stayed fixed on her head like a crown. And seeing this incredible feat, I knew that the woman patting juba, wreathed in ghostly blue, was my mother.

    No one else saw her—not Maynard, who was then in the back of the new Millennium chaise, not the fancy girl who held him rapt with her wiles, and, most strange, not the horse, though I had been told that horses had a nose for things that stray out from other worlds and stumble into ours. No, only I saw her from the driver's seat of the chaise, and she was just as they'd described her, just as they'd said she'd been in the olden days when she would leap into a circle of all my people—Aunt Emma, Young P, Honas, and Uncle John—and they would clap, pound their chests, and slap their knees, urging her on in double time, and she would stomp the dirt floor hard, as if crushing a crawling thing under her heel, and bend at the hips and bow, then twist and wind her bent knees in union with her hands, the earthen jar still on her head. My mother was the best dancer at Lockless, that is what they told me, and I remembered this because she'd gifted me with none of it, but more I remembered because it was dancing that brought her to the attention of my father, and thus had brought me to be. And more than that, I remembered because I remembered everything—everything, it seemed, except her.

    It was autumn, now, the season when the races came south. That afternoon Maynard had scored on a long-shot thoroughbred, and thought this might, at last, win the esteem of Virginia Quality he sought. But when he made the circuit around the great town square, leaning back, way back in the chaise and grinning large, the men of society turned their back to him and puffed on their cigars. There were no salutes. He was what he would always be—Maynard the Goof, Maynard the Lame, Maynard the Fool, the rotten apple who'd fallen many miles from the tree. He fumed and had me drive to the old house at the edge of our town, Starfall, where he purchased himself a night with a fancy, and had the bright notion to bring her back to the big house at Lockless, and, most fatefully, in a sudden bout of shame,...
About the Author-
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of The Beautiful Struggle, We Were Eight Years in Power, and Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award in 2015. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Coates lives in New York City with his wife and son.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from July 1, 2019
    Coates (We Were Eight Years in Power) makes his ambitious fiction debut with this wonderful novel that follows Hiram Walker, a boy with an extraordinary memory. Born on a Virginia plantation, he realizes at five that he has a photographic recall—except where it concerns his mother, Rose, who was sold and whom he can only reconstruct through what others tell him. Born to Rose and Howell Walker, master and owner of Lockless, the land Hiram works, Hiram is called up at age 12 to the house to serve Maynard, his half-brother. When the novel opens, Hiram is 19, and he and Maynard are on their way back to Lockless when the bridge they’re traveling over collapses. Deep in the river, Hiram is barraged with visions of his ancestors, and finally a woman water-dancing, whom he recognizes as his mother. After he wakes up, mysteriously saved even as Maynard dies, Hiram yearns for a life beyond “the unending night of slavery.” But when his plans to escape with Sophia, the woman he loves, are dashed by betrayal and violence, Hiram is inducted into the Underground, the secret network of agents working to liberate slaves. Valued for his literacy and for the magical skill the Underground believes he possesses, Hiram comes to learn that the fight for freedom comes with its own sacrifices and restrictions. In prose that sings and imagination that soars, Coates further cements himself as one of this generation’s most important writers, tackling one of America’s oldest and darkest periods with grace and inventiveness. This is bold, dazzling, and not to be missed.

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A Novel
Ta-Nehisi Coates
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