After reading a three-star review of Water Dancer, I had to write my own and give Water Dancer five stars: Though he usually writes non-fiction, Coates ‘attempt’ at historical science fiction is better than many other books by many other authors out there and puts him squarely in the group of other wonderful writers I have been enjoying this year: Colson Whitehead, Richard Wright, Jesmyn Ward, and Alice Walker.
Hiram’s world in Water Dancer reminds me of Janie Crawford’s world in Zoe Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and of Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy. And also of the many motivations behind the African-American diaspora recounted in Isabel Wright’s account of The Great Migration. He does use the frame of the Underground Railroad for the plot—a topic at once tired, sacrosanct, and trending. Like many people, I wondered whether he could make that work. Then, like Colson Whitehead, he pulled it off with the panache and flair of a seasoned SF writer.
I’m fascinated about the role of African-Americans in the Philadelphia malarial plague of 1793 and about how “the story of the White family takes the real-life saga of William and Peter Still and their family as its inspiration.” I plan to read further on the source material Coates has credited. The movement of slave-holders and slaves from tired land on the east coast to places in Kentucky and further south is also a topic of interest.
In the living, breathing character of Hiram, I think that Coates has achieved what few writers have done--created a character whose ambivalence and awareness is always growing: He faces the world of the Task throughout. He carefully examines the damage done to all of the people he has known and loved in his life. He lives, as far as possible, an examined and authentic life. The limits, fears, hopes, dreams, physical debilitation, casual rape, and emotional suffering of slavery, ‘the Task,’ are all here in a swirl of the best descriptive language and imaging available—they have the weight of the supernatural and superhuman. Hiram’s personal struggle to have a vision/solution to his particular set of problems continually sets him apart: He seems way past being able to know and protect the people he loves in a consistent manner—the Task keeps rolling on—the laundry.