By Ta-Nehisi Coates, A potent story about a man born into bondage with the power to shape his fate
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is Coates’s first foray into writing fiction, and it piqued my curiosity as soon as I heard about it. Yesterday, it was announced as the latest Oprah’s Book Club pick.
Coates is well-known for his books of essays, but I largely read fiction, so I’ve never read anything by him other than occasional articles in The Atlantic. I was excited, then, when I heard about The Water Dancer. It’s a story of a boy born into bondage with mysterious powers, which sounded like a potentially interesting story.
(This review is long. Scroll down to the “Read it or Skip it?” section for the quick and dirty version of this review.)
Hiram Walker is born on an estate called Lockless in Antebellum Virginia. He is a slave, and his mother was sold off when he was young. She remains in his memory mostly as beautiful woman doing a water-dance with a jug propped upon her head.
But Hiram is notably intelligent, has a strangely sharp memory and possesses a power that he doesn’t entirely understand. As he learns to use this power, it will take him on a journey across America to places he’d never dreamed possible. It will also force him to confront his memories and truths about slavery and his life.
In a story that is both stark with realism and adorned with fantasy, Hiram joins the Underground, and he searches for freedom in a life where he and the ones he loves have been born as slaves.
See The Water Dancer on Amazon.
When The Water Dancer begins, apart from a few scenes, it plays out much like much many stories about slavery during the Antebellum Era in America. It is elegantly written, evocative and reveals much about the horrors of slavery.
Then, about a third of the way in, the focus of the book shifts as Hiram begins to discover his powers. The shift is both good and bad. It gives the story room to explore a wider range of ideas, but it also becomes more plot-driven and fantastical, which is where the writing and plotting occasionally suffer. Still, there’s so much discerning thought and insight in this novel that it’s worth overlooking the story’s imperfections.
Coates doesn’t settle for just hammering away at about well-worn things we all know about slavery. He seems well aware that there’s no lack of books, movies and TV shows that focus on the sensational horrors of slavery — of terrible violence, rape and things of that nature. Coates is quick to move past all this.
Instead, he expends his words trying to pry at things few consider, and he dwells on the more nuanced aspects of injustice. Things like how bondage can bring out cruelty in otherwise well-mannered people with just a bit of drink and boredom. Or how someone can be fanatical in fighting slavery, yet with limited empathy for the slaves themselves.
Coates also wrestles with differing views on how a battle should be waged, when revenge is just or to what extent the ends justify the means. And the story highlights how fighting against injustice is not always a morally clear0cut enterprise. When the characters take down a black man who betrayed other slaves, Coates reminds us that the man is still someone who is trapped in the same unjust system as the rest of them.
As the book follows Hiram’s journey, there are so many small insights and nuanced points that Coates makes that I’m not really doing justice to by listing them out here. The point is, The Water Dancer is a book with a lot of important things to say. As it concludes, it comes together in satisfying way, and you will likely feel enriched from having read it.
Book Review: Some Criticisms
As mentioned above though, it’s not a perfect book. While this is technically Hiram’s story, Coates is ultimately the chief protagonist of this story. His voice, his thoughts and his views are what stand at the forefront, and the plot often becomes structured around the best way to highlight thoughts he wants to showcase.
As a result, the narrative occasionally meanders instead of having a clear direction. Especially in the middle parts, at times it seems like you’re wandering in and out of scenes where Coates has a point he wants to make, as opposed to following a story that flows organically.
Because of this, Hiram feels like a very inert character. Even after he is a free man, a lot of the events of the novel are things happening to him, and Hiram is relegated to the role of a narrator. His character’s motivations, while present, are blunted by unnatural plot contrivances and Coates veering off into whatever territory he wants to explore.
Unsurprisingly, the writing itself is strongest at junctures when there’s a specific point Coates is trying to make or an idea he’s trying to explore. You can tell which parts he really cared about because his prose is so deliberate and incisive in those parts, with a careful flowing cadence to his words. Then, there are the other parts. These are generally when he’s trying to move the plot from point A to point B. They can at times be rhythmless and clunky and feel a little careless.
Even while acknowledging the many impressive qualities of Coates’s writing, I have to admit I felt a little frustrated with this book at times. It tested my patience occasionally, and while I’m very glad I read it, I wouldn’t describe it as an effortless read.
Is it Fantasy or Magic Realism?
Not that any of these labels matter, but for the record, I’d say that this is a book with elements of fantasy, not magical realism. There seems to be the idea among literary types that somehow fantasy is “bad” and magical realism is “good”. Because this is a serious literary novel and Ta-Nehisi Coates is undoubtedly a serious literary dude, many have been referring to its use of magic as “magic realism”.
But I don’t buy that fantasy is somehow “worse” or more hack-y than magic realism. Instead, when it comes to fantasy vs. magical realism, I think a better definition is to say that if something magical happens and it’s clear that it’s magic, then it’s fantasy. If not, then it’s magic realism.
In the fantasy genre, magic has clear rules and boundaries. In magic realism, it’s not clear if it’s magic or if it’s some type of metaphor, illusion, a dream or what not. It often has a mystical quality and can be mixed in with surrealism, where surreal occurrences are considered normal.
Based on that definition, I’d say that The Water Dancer steps firmly into the fantasy genre. The dude has powers, there are clear rules surrounding those powers, and he and others are aware that it is magic. They are undeniably magical powers, not some type of metaphor or psychological manifestation. So, definitely fantasy. Again, this is all semantics, but I’m just putting that out there.
Read it or Skip it?
After reading this, I have no doubt it will help to cement Ta-Nehisi Coates’s reputation as someone with very sound and well-constructed thoughts about the black experience in America. The The Water Dancer is a powerful and evocative story, that somehow manages to be starkly realistic and boldy imaginative.
In there are moments of great insight in this book and elements of an interesting and inventive plot as well. It’s not a perfect book though, and at times, the two aspects of the book seem to be fighting against each other. As a result, the quality of writing, the pacing of the story and the tone of the narrative can become a little uneven. If you read this, you will almost definitely get something out of it, but it’s a story that will take some effort to get through.
If you’re a fan of Coates or highly interested in this topic, I heartily recommend this book, and I think you will enjoy it. For everyone else, I’d recommend reading the first couple chapters to get a feel for whether his writing style suits you. I’ll also note that this is definitely much more literary fiction than fantasy, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re primarily interested in the fantasy aspects of the story.
As a book club pick, I’d say that it’s a good book for groups that don’t mind slightly tougher novels. The Water Dancer is not the most accessible book out there, but it is certainly a worthwhile read with interesting points of discussion.
See The Water Dancer on Amazon.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
The chapter-by-chapter summary is below, but here’s a quick synopsis.
In Part I, Hiram is a slave on the estate of Lockless in Virgina. He has a power called “Conduction” where he can transport himself or others, but he doesn’t know how to control it. His father is white and the master of Lockless, Howell. Hiram's mother Rose was sold when he was young, but Thena, another slave, helps to raise him. Hiram is intelligent, unlike his (white) brother Maynard, who is a fool. When Howell assigns Hiram a tutor, Hiram hopes it is to help him become master of Lockless one day, but his dreams are crushed when he learns it was all for him to be Maynard's personal servant. Later, Maynard passes away in an accident that Hiram survives because his Conduction abilities kick in. One day, Hiram tries to run away with another slave named Sofia, but he is betrayed, and they are captured.
In Part II, Hiram is bought and mistreated until he is injured which triggers his Conduction ability. He’s brought to a woman, Corrine, who is connected to the Underground, which frees slaves. She wants him to use his power to help the Underground, and Hiram is sent to Philadelphia to work from there. Hiram spends the year there and is glad to help free other slaves, and he meets Thena's daughter. He comes across Harriet Tubman, nicknamed "Moses," who is the only other person with the Conduction power. She teaches him that Conduction relies on the power of memories and requires water to function. Hiram also still thinks about Sofia, and he learns that Sofia is back at Lockless.
In Part III, Hiram returns to Virginia to free Sofia and Thena. He goes back to work for his father, who thinks he's been working for Corrine the whole time. He finds Sofia pregnant with another man's baby, but Hiram vows to love her and the baby. Corrine acquires Sofia so they can be together. At Lockless, Hiram finds a necklace that awakens a painful memory of his father selling his mother, which unlocks the full potential of his Conductive abilities. He uses that power to free Thena and send her to be with her daughter. When Howell passes away, Corrine acquires Lockless and asks Hiram to oversee it, effectively making him the master of Lockless. Sofia and Hiram stay there to raise the baby.
Hiram “Hi” Walker is a slave. He lives in the town of Starfall near the river Goose, where he works at an estate called Lockless in Virginia. His master is Maynard, who is technically his half-brother, as they share the same father. Their father is the Master of Lockless.
Hiram and Maynard are crossing a bridge on a chaise (small horse-drawn carriage) when the bridge gives out. Maynard cannot swim and drowns. Hiram feels himself drowning as well. There’s a blue mist and he sees a vision of a woman with a jug on her head.
(The narration goes back in time to provide background information) At Lockless, the slave-owners are known as the “Quality” and the slaves are known as the “Tasked“.
Hiram’s mother Rose was also one of the Tasked, and was sold when Hiram was young. Now Hiram sees her as an apparition of a woman dancing with a jug on top of her head. Hiram first discovers he has a special power the day his mother is sold. He is nine. He sees a blue mist arising out of a trough of water, and enters it. But at this point, he doesn’t know how to use his powers. He is somehow transported back to his cabin. Hiram also has a sharp memory.
The “Tasked” that work the fields live in an area they call “The Street“. Thena is an older woman who lives on The Street who takes care of Hiram after Hiram’s mother is taken away. Thena’s husband, Big John, had been the overseer of the fields before Boss Harlan. Boss Harlan is mean and presides over the fields at Lockless, while his wife Desi manages the house.
Big John was wise and good, but died of a fever. After that, Thena’s five kids were all sold and taken away. This is referred to as going off Natchez-way, which means they are being sold and shipped west. After she tells Hiram this, he understands that it is why she is angry and keeps to herself mostly.
One day, Hiram’s father passes by him, smiles and tosses him a copper coin. The next day, Thena tells Hi that he’s being sent out of the fields and into the house. She says that here in the fields they have some degree of freedom, but in the house things will be different. He will need to watch himself carefully. They are not your family, she tells him.
Hi is excited despite Thena’s warning. Roscoe, the butler, comes to fetch him. He’s brought in front of his brother and his father, Howell Walker.
Hiram works hard at the house. Ella is the head cook, and Pete is the gardener.
After 4 months (Hi is 12 now), Howell decides to throw a dinner party. It’s a small gathering, but it’s a big deal since things have been tight and tense around these parts. Ella and Pete discuss how many families have been moving away from this area to go west and things are not how they once were.
After dinner, one of the guests is irritable, demands a song and slaps one of the men-in-waiting. Hiram notes that “bored whites were barbarian whites” and that “when they bored of dignity, the bottom fell out.” To break the tension, Hiram offers up a card trick. Then, he offers up another party trick that shows off his ability to memorize things. The guests are delighted.
A few days later, Hiram is brought in to see Dr. Isaiah Fields, who is his brother Maynard’s tutor and was a guest at the party. He test Hiram on his memory, and afterwards his father offers to have Dr. Fields tutor him. Hiram accepts, and they begin studying reading, math and the like. Hiram is smarter than Maynard, who is dumb, clumsy and crass.
As Hiram learns, he also finds out more about what is going on among the Quality in Virginia. Tobacco prices are falling, which is making things difficult. People are moving out west where there is undeveloped land and better opportunities. They are selling their slaves for money, which means they don’t have enough people to do the work. Ella is no longer there one day, presumably sold.
He also learns how the house operates. Hiram dreams that his father will eventually recognize Hiram’s value and make him the rightful heir to Lockless instead of the oafish Maynard. Hi believes that he would be able to fix its problems and make things bountiful again.
When he’s brought in to see his father one day, the reason for Hiram’s lessons is revealed (and Hi’s dreams are crushed). His father wants him to be Maynard’s personal servant, to help him, serve him and support him. With that, Hi’s lessons are over.
Years pass. Hi is now 19. Maynard is as terrible at running Lockless as Hi had feared. They have sold off many people. His father hopes to save Lockless by marrying Maynard off to Corrine Quinn, the wealthiest woman in Elm County. There is to be a big race tomorrow, which Maynard will participate in and ride the Millennium chaise (fancy new carriage). Hi’s father asks him to watch over Maynard.
Sophia is a Tasked owned by Hi’s uncle, Nathaniel Walker. She stays here instead of at Nathaniel’s property to thinly disguise that her “task” is to have sex with him. She knits the rest of the time. Hiram is Tasked with bringing her back and forth from the two properties.
At the races, all the Quality are there and dressed up. Maynard is shunned among them, since he has poor manners, brawls with others and is known as a fool. He wants to prove himself in the races and be accepted by them once again. When Diamond, Maynard’s horse, wins the race, he is joyous. But he becomes unhappy when the other Quality people still don’t acknowledge him.
Meanwhile, Hiram thinks about the two avenues for freedom — buying his way somehow or running. However, now that the economy of Virginia is doing poorly, it’s unlikely that any Tasked would be permitted to buy their freedom since they could be sold for more. At the same time, running seems impossible too since they always got caught. Hiram has heard of the Underground, where a secret society frees the Tasked somehow and are rumored to live in the swamps.
There’s rumors that Georgie Parks, a freed colored, has ties to the Underground. Georgie is well respected in Elm County, even by the whites. Hiram goes to visit him. Georgie lives near the Ryland Jail which is next to the freed colored part of town, Freetown. The jail is used primarily to imprison runaway slaves. The low-born whites that hunt runaways are referred to as Ryland’s Hounds.
Georgie tells Hi about his mother Rosie, who was beautiful, and her sister Emma. The two of them would challenge each other to water-dances, where they would dance with jugs of water balanced on their heads until one person spilled. Hiram tells Georgie that he needs to leave Virginia. Hiram asks to be connected to the Underground. But Georgie tells him that his life is better than most other Tasked, so he should just accept it.
As Maynard and Hiram head out of Starfall to go home, that’s when they cross the bridge and the incident happens (from Chapter One when Maynard drowns). There’s a blue mist, Hiram sees a vision of his mother with the water jug on his head and something he doesn’t entirely understand happens.
Hiram wakes up in Maynard’s bed. His father confirms that Maynard died in the river Goose. Hiram realizes that in the incident he lost his copper coin which he has always held on to as a good luck charm. Corrine is there, in prayer with Howell.
Hiram goes down to the Warrens, where the Tasked live, and sees Thena, who is relieved he’s okay. Sophia tells him that Hawkins, Corrine’s servant, found him washed up on the shore. Sophia and Hi take a walk that night and she tells him about her life before coming to Lockless. She says she was with a man, and they had been happy together.
Hiram can tell that the other Tasked have been told to let him take it easy. But Hiram finds work anyway, even though Thena tells him to go back and rest.
Later, Hawkins comes to find him, saying that Corrine wants to speak with him. Corrine is in a black veil, mourning the death of her betrothed. She is sad about Maynard’s death. She wants to know about how he died, since Hiram was there. Hiram lies and tells her that Maynard saved him to give her comfort. Corrine then suggests that perhaps Hiram should work for her now instead since Maynard is gone. Hiram understands later that she is essentially trying to claim valuable property. But he also knows that it would take him away from Lockless, which is his home.
That Christmas, Howell has a big feast for all the Walkers, who come in from all over to flatter him in hopes he’ll bequest land to them (since Howell now has no heir). Hi and the other Tasked have a separate Christmas dinner where they talk about Santi Bess, Rosie’s mother (Hi’s grandmother). There’s a legend that Santi Bess and 48 other Tasked somehow escaped together. They walked into the water and re-emerged in Africa. Georgie says it’s not true, it’s all just tales.
That night, Hiram and Sophia talk and look at the stars. Almost drowning has awakened a desire in him for her.
Hi can see Corrine’s growing influence over Howell, and knows that she’ll get her way and soon he’ll be parted from Lockless and all the people he knows.
Sophia tells Hiram more about her past. She was raised alongside Nathaniel’s late wife, Helen, as her companion. They were friends, and Sophia was happy. When Helen married Nathaniel, Sophia was brought here too and everything changed. Helen died in childbirth.
Then, Sophia talks about them running away together. Hiram goes to Georgie and tells him that he and Sophia are going to leave together. Georgie tries to discourage him, but relents. Georgie tells him to come back in one week with Sophia.
On the way back, Hawkins inquires about him going to see Georgie Parks. Hiram knows that some people Task/serve by acting as the eyes and ears for their masters. It appears Hawkins and his sister Amy do this for Corrine. But Mr. Fields shows up and Hawkins backs off. Hiram doesn’t think much about why they would be talking to Mr. Fields, but he notes that he should have. When Hiram fetches Sophia from Nathaniel’s place that night, she tells him again that she wants to leave. Hiram says ok.
That night, Hi tells Sophia his plan, but Sophia makes clear that while she intends to run off with him, her plan is not necessarily to be with him. She’s not looking for a colored version of Nathaniel, who will keep her shackled. If those are his terms, then he should tell her now and let her decide, she says. Hi tells her no, that she will be free to decide her life even if she run away with him. But he admits he hopes she’ll decide to stay with him.
When Hi returns, Thena demands to know what he’s doing running around with Sophia, which is clearly reckless since she is Nathaniel’s girl. Hi is rude to Thena, despite her having cared for him all those years. Looking back, Hiram notes that he will in time regret his last words to Thena.
Sophia and Hi go to meet up with Georgie on the night of their departure. Georgie is there, but he has brought five white men with ropes too.
Ryland’s Hounds bring Sophia and Hi to the jail and chain them up. Sophia inches over to Hi and rests against him.
Sophia is taken away the next day. Hiram is put in a cell where slave traders come in to check him out. The two others in the cell are a boy of about 12, whose mother is a freed colored who comes in to see him, and an old man. Whereas Hiram and the boy are meant to be sold for profit, the old man is too old to be useful. Instead, the low whites beat and mistreat the old man for entertainment.
The old man tells Hi about his past and how he ended up in jail. He was hardworking, married and had a son. His wife died, but their son worked hard, married and had a boy as well. One day, they decide to sell off the old man’s son and grandson, and the old man was powerless to do anything. The son’s wife was heartbroken, but in time the old man and the son’s wife ended up making a family together. One day, the man who bought the son returned. Rather than face the shame of his son finding out his father had taken up with his wife, the old man burned down one of the buildings on the property so he would be taken away instead.
Soon, the 12-year-old boy is sold off. A while later, the old man is brought out to be used as entertainment and then never comes back. Presumably he was killed. By then, Hiram had been in jail for three weeks. One day, a man who has paid a high price for Hiram shows up to take him away. Hiram would soon find out he is the type of man who bought slaves simply for the pleasure of being able to do whatever they wanted with other humans — locking them up for fun, murdering them or using them for experiments.
Hiram is kept in a cell in a pit. One day, he’s brought out to a clearing. There is a group of low-born whites there. Other slaves are brought in as well. The man who bought him tells them the rules. The slaves are to run, and if they can outrun these white men, they will be free. Otherwise, they will be at their mercy.
The slaves scatter, but Hiram is weak from hunger. When he falls, they descend on him and beat him. Then, they shove him back in the pit. He soon finds out that this same ritual will happen again and again.
Eventually Hiram gets stronger and faster. He’s able to use his memory to learn the terrain and to cover his tracks, but he still can’t get away. He knows if he’s going to truly escape, he needs to learn how to use his other power. Both times his other power kicked in, which he refers to as the power of “Conduction“, there was a blue mist and image of his mother. He knows it is somehow connected to her.
One night, he falls and breaks his ankle. As he’s laying on the ground, he sees a vision of Lockless from when he was younger. When he awakens Hawkins is standing above him.
The next time Hiram is fully conscious, he finds himself in Corrine Quinn’s home. She tells him she knows he ran away. She also tells him she knows he has the power of Conduction, and that his grandmother Santi Bess had it, too. The story of her transporting away with 48 others is true.
Corrine Quinn tell Hiram that she has purchased him. She also tells him that he is to be free, but he still must serve. She, along with her people, serve the Underground. She wanted him because of his powers so he can help her with the Underground. Corrine allowed the man to throw him into that pit and play the game with him because she had to be sure he had the power. But it worked. When he broke his ankle, he transported himself to Lockless, which is how Hawkins found him.
Hiram joins Corrine, Hawkins, Amy, Mr. Fields and three other Tasked for dinner that night. Amy explains that Corrine inherited this estate, Bryceton (in Virgina), from her parents as the only child. Everyone who lives here works for the Underground.
Here, there are House Agents and Field Agents, but they are all one army. The House Agents deal with a lot of paperwork (freedom papers, wills, etc.) necessary for their work. The Field Agents go into the plantations and elsewhere to help lead the Tasked into the Underground. Hiram trains physically, and Mr. Fields resumes his lessons with Hiram as well.
Soon, Corrine starts routinely bringing Hiram documents to study to be able to understand and forge papers for various Tasked to be freed. He needs to learn to mimic their handwriting and understand their mindsets and concerns to be able to effectively forge these letters and papers.
Hiram wishes to master Conduction, but is unable to trigger it. There is one other person, nicknamed “Moses“, who also possess the power. She is able to magically transport Tasked to freedom. However, she lives elsewhere, keeps to herself, and no one knows anything about how she works.
Hirams asks Corrine to see the Underground in action and she agrees.
Before Corrine will let Hiram in further, she wants Hiram to destroy Georgie Parks. She tells Hiram that Georgie has betrayed many more Tasked than just him. The plan is to make the Taskmasters (the whites) think that Georgie has turned against them. Hiram has longed for revenge, but he also recognizes that Georgie is trapped in the same system as he is. Still, he does as he’s asked, though it will mean Georgie’s death.
After, Mr. Fields reveals to Hiram that his real name is Micajah Bland. He also tells Hiram that his first mission will be bringing a man named Parnel Johns to freedom. They go to meet Parnel, who has brought along someone else, Lucy, which was not part of the plan. They travel quickly and leave them at the cabin of a old white lady, near Bryceton. Then, they head home.
Once that’s done, Hiram is assigned to go to Philadelphia. His story is that he is a free colored who has purchased his freedom. He will be working at a woodshop, which is a front for the Underground’s operations.
Bland and Hawkins accompany Hiram to Philadelphia. There, they introduce Hi to Raymond White and Otha White, two siblings he’ll be staying with. Raymond is from the North, but Otha was originally born into slavery, and they both are part of the Underground.
At a bakery nearby, he meets Mars, who’s related via his wife Hannah to Raymond and Otha. Mars gives him some gingerbread. As Hiram eats it, his Conduction kicks in, and for a moment he’s briefly transported to Lockless in some sort of non-present day dream form where he sees a woman.
In Philadelphia, the law is that if someone is brought here under bondage, if they request their freedom, then it must be granted because slavery is illegal here. However, it must be specifically requested (and cannot be induced by others), so masters try to not let their slaves know about this law.
Raymond rushes to the aid of a woman, Mary Bronson, whose request for freedom has not been honored. He confronts her master, and Mary and her son Octavius leave with Raymond. Afterwards, she thanks Raymond and Otha, but laments that her other sons and husband are still in captivity. Mary says that to truly be “living free” means being with them as well. Hearing that, Hiram thinks about all the people he’s lost as well.
Otha invites Hi to dinner with the entire White family at their parents’ house. Otha, Raymond, Mars and all their relatives are there. Hiram thinks that this is the first truly free colored family he’s ever seen. Otha tells Hi about their past. His father had escaped and then his mother Viola, but Otha and his older brother Lambert were sold and separated from their baby siblings, Raymond and Patsy. Otha eventually bought his freedom from his master, but Lambert died. Otha had to leave his wife, Lydia, and his children in the process. Otha later met Raymond by chance, and they realized they were brothers which is how Otha was reunited with his family.
Hiram’s Conduction abilities are triggered more often nowadays, usually activated by some type of memory, though it always leaves him exhausted and melancholy. Hiram thinks that it’s trying to show him something.
One night as Hiram is out walking, he’s attacked by man-catchers. These are people who capture random black men in the North and sell them back down south. Hiram is forced to travel with them, headed South, but he is rescued by Bland (Mr. Fields) since all the Agents are monitored. Bland kills the man-catchers. The next morning Bland talks to an old woman, who then teases Hiram about getting caught. After they depart, Hiram is told that the old woman is Moses.
Hiram asks Bland why Bland didn’t just stop them from capturing him in the first place. Bland says it’s to send them a message; they couldn’t just murder the men if they were still in the city. Emotional over the ordeal, Hiram cries to Bland about his guilt over Sophia and her unknown fate.
When they return, Raymond, Otha and Bland reveal to Hiram that they’ve known all along that Sophia was returned to Lockless after being imprisoned. They add that they have a plan to get her out.
Before they can rescue Sofia, there’s a more pressing issue of Otha’s family. Lydia’s master has refused to let her buy her freedom, and knowing someone wants her has made him suspicious. They want to rescue her now while they still can.
Hiram goes to talk to Bland about the plan. He also expresses his frustration with Corrine, who let him be tortured in that pit and left Sophia at Lockless. All for the sake of trying to draw out Hiram’s Conduction abilities. Bland ends up telling him Corrine has been very instrumental to the cause and has made a lot of sacrifices, including her parents.
A man in Alabama named Daniel McKiernan currently holds Lydia. To get papers to help forge passes and letters, they go to the house of a Philadelphia man named Elon Simpson who is involved in the slave trade.
As they stake out Elon Simpson’s house, Bland explains how he (as a white man) became part of the Underground. He say that he fought the Indians, and it changed him when he saw how they were treated. Once the documents are ready, Bland will make his way to Alabama, pretend to be Lydia’s owner, and lead her along with her children out.
While Bland goes on his mission to rescue Lydia, Raymond, Otha and Hiram travel north, and they cross paths with “Moses”. She prefers to go by Harriet. They soon arrive at the Convention, a gathering of reformers who wish to rally people to their causes. A man speaks about the evils of alcohol. Women encourage others to take up the cause of suffrage. An Indian in traditional dress is part of display on the injustice Indians suffered across America. Children talked about child labor. Another group talks about shared property. Later, Hiram considers how “slavery is the root of all struggle,” not just human bondage but all types of oppression that works to enslave people.
Hiram meets a woman who recognizes him, Kessiah, who is Thena’s oldest daughter. Kessiah and her siblings were sold after their father passed away, and she has never seen any of her siblings again. She later married into Moses’s family and was freed by Moses.
At dinner, they receive word that Bland’s mission was a success, and Lydia and her children are safe.
Harriet/Moses approaches Hiram and asks for his help. When he asks why she doesn’t just use her powers, she implies that her “powers” are just talk. However, the next morning they get news that Bland was captured and killed. Lydia and her children have also been recaptured. They mourn Bland, but Otha is determined to not give up on his family.
Hiram returns to Philadelphia, joined by Raymond, Otha, Harriet, Kessiah, Corrine, Hawkins and Amy. Hiram worries whether it was his papers that had resulted in Bland being killed. Corrine tells him no and fills him in on what happened. One of Lydia’s children had gotten sick, which made traveling difficult. When Lydia and the kids were recaptured, Bland kept trying to save them, which is probably why they killed him.
Soon, Harriet instructs Hiram on the help she’d previously requested. She needs some documents from him, and then they are going to Maryland. When the letters are done, Harriet uses Conduction to ferry them to Maryland. Like with Hiram, her abilities are powered by her memories. As they travel, her memories act like a bridge and she tells Hiram a story. Harriet was born into slavery. She recalls as a young girl seeing a boy, Abe, try unsuccessfully to escape, which first inspired her desire for freedom.
When Hiram’s vision returns to normal, they are no longer in Philadelphia.
As they head to to a small cabin, Hiram asks Harriet about the power of Conduction. She confirms that Conduction relies on stories and memories that serve as a bridge across time and distances. She tells him that to really have control over it, he needs to figure out how to unlock memories that a part of him is trying to forget. She also tells him that Conduction requires water, and that to be Conducted, there needs to have a memory linked to a place and time where you’re trying to go.
In the cabin, they meet with the people they are going to Conduct. One man, Robert, is missing from their group, and Hiram’s job is to go pick him up. Harriet gives Hiram a pistol just in case.
When Hiram goes to fetch Robert, Robert’s pregnant wife, Mary, won’t let him go. She thinks Robert is off to meet up with another woman. Hiram finally tells her the truth that he is helping Robert escape. Hiram promises to return someday for Mary so they can be reunited.
That night, Harriet Conducts them out of there. She has them all chant with her, and she calls upon the memory of her late husband, John Tubman.
Upon arriving back in Philadelphia, Hiram realizes it’s time for him to go home to Virginia. Meanwhile, Otha has been in touch with Lydia’s owner and thinks that there’s an opportunity to buy her freedom.
Hi tells Kessiah he’s going back to Virginia and bids farewell. Back in Starfall, Hiram heads to Bryceton to meet with Corrine. They each desire something from the other. Corrine wants Hiram to go back to his father in order to get information on the future of Lockless. Meanwhile, Hiram wants her help in freeing Sophia and Thena. They each agree to help the other.
Hiram also see that Freetown is now in disrepair. Georgie Park’s home is destroyed. Hiram recognizes that this was the result of their revenge on Georgie, and that its vengeance had seeped into the rest of Freetown as well.
Hiram returns to Lockless and his father is happy to see him. Hiram is to take the place of Roscoe, his father’s butler who recently passed away. Lockless is also now shabbier and less well-staffed. There’s only three household staff, all of whom are elderly.
Hiram goes to see Thena and apologizes for his rudeness when he left. Thena doesn’t really react. Later, Hiram goes to see Sophia who now has a child, Caroline (“Carrie”). Sophia assures him it’s not his. Hiram notices Caroline’s eyes are the same color as Nathaniel Walker’s, which is the same color is his since he’s a Walker as well. He later determines that Sophia must have already been pregnant when she decided to run away with him.
Autumn turns to winter, and Hiram is by his father’s side each day and has dinner with Thena each night. Hiram reports back that Lockless is in debt now that the land is worth less and less. Nathaniel has moved to Tennessee for better economic opportunities.
Sophia and Thena chide Hiram for being angry that Sophia has another man’s child. Sophia tells him he needs to be less possessive if he wants to be with her. Hiram apologies and promises to try to be better.
Thena has been taking work doing laundry for others to earn extra money to buy her freedom. Sophia tells Hiram that they should take over for Thena since it’s hard work and Thena is old. Hi agrees. Hiram also assures Sophia of his commitment to her and to baby Caroline.
Sophia has questions about what exactly happened after they were caught. She only knows that Corrine showed up, brought her back, and never told Nathaniel that she’d run away. Corrine occasionally drops by to ask her for updates on things at Lockless. Even after Nathaniel left, Sophia was allowed to stay at Lockless.
When Sophia tells Hiram how glad she is that he’s back, Hi feels a rush of memories. That night, he is able to use his Conduction powers confidently.
One day, Hiram and Sophie go to Thena’s place to find that she has been injured and someone has stolen the money she has saved up. Hiram is certain that it was someone who was Tasked who had done it, but they don’t know who. Hiram and Sophie move in with Thena for her safety. Hiram tells Corrine that he thinks it is time to get Sophie and Thena north, but Corrine disagrees. She tells Hiram that he’s already made a deal with Nathaniel that transfer title for Sophia to Corrine. So, Sophia is fine, and it’s not a good time to free Thena.
Hiram describes Corrine as a fanatical agent against slavery, but her hate of slavery outweighed her love of any slave. Her hate of slavery has more to do with how it reflects on her and the world she lives in. So, she fights it zealously but is less concerned about the needs of any individual. Corrine is concerned that the circumstances will seem suspicious if Hiram, Sophia and Thena suddenly disappear, and it will put her operations at risk.
Corrine asks Hiram not to do anything that will put them all at risk.
Hiram tells Sophia he is finally ready to tell her what really happened after he ended up in Ryland’s. He explains and then takes her to the river to show her his Conduction abilities. He tells her he wants to get her out of there, but he needs to return to Virginia to help the Underground. Sophia tells him she’s not leaving without him, and she knows Hiram is tied to Lockless.
Next, Hiram tells Thena he wants to help her escape. He tells her about seeing Kessiah. Thena starts to get nostalgic about Kessiah and then gets angry about Hiram encouraging her to access memories that she’s shut away since it’s too hard for her otherwise.
Hiram still has not pieced together his memories of his mother, and he knows he needs a memory strong enough to transport Thena across the country. Hiram pens a coded missive to Harriet, letting her know about his plans, just in case. He then goes through his father’s things. Hiram finds a shell necklace which belonged to his mother. As he puts it on, it fit like the “a lot jigsaw” and he feels the power of it ripple through his body.
That night Hawkins talks to Hiram and tries to clarify why Corrine tried to discourage him from freeing Thena and Sophia. But he also acknowledges that Hiram is a free man and should act according to his judgement. The next Sunday, Hiram goes to Thena to tell her it’s time. Thena tells Hiram how heartbroken she was when he left Lockless. She holds him and cries. Not having heard from Harriet, Hiram decides he’ll proceed alone.
The next Saturday, he walks Thena out to the river Goose. Hiram then starts to recount the memory he recently recovered. He talks about his mother, Rose, and her sister Emma, dancing. He remembers how one night his mother and Emma tried to run away with Hiram in tow, but they were caught. Howell Walker showed up, and soon Hiram understood that he would sell Rose and her sister. Hiram remembers yelling and crying, trying to hold on to his mother, knowing she was to be taken away from him. In the end, Rose is sold in exchange for a horse. In the stables near the trough is when Hiram felt the first twinges of Conduction as he sat there crying.
The fog of Conduction envelopes them, but soon he sees Harriet meet them on the other side. Kessiah is there as well, and tells Hiram he can head back since they will take Thena from there. Hiram collapses in exhaustion.
Hiram wakes up in Corrine’s house, where they took him after Sophia found him.
Corrine ends up taking over Lockless by agreeing to take it and its many debts over from Howell when he passed away the following fall. Hiram is assigned to oversee Lockless, though it too is now an outpost for the Underground.
The book ends with Hiram describing a scene a few days after Thena’s departure as he and Sofia eat dinner and put Carrie to bed.See The Water Dancer on Amazon.