The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer Summary and Analysis of Chapters 15 – 18


Four months after his arrival, Hiram departs from Bryceton. He has few belongings and does not have the chance to say a formal goodbye to Corrine and Amy. He walks to Clarksburg in the company of Bland and Hawkins. Then they travel separately through Baltimore and Ohio to reach Philadelphia. After two days of journeying they arrive in Philadelphia and Hiram’s escort, Raymond White, meets him and takes him to the Underground’s office on Ninth Street. There Hi will have his own room in a shared apartment with Raymond’s brother, Otha White.

Soon Hawkins and Bland leave and Hiram explores the city. The diverse, urban environment impresses Hi. On his first day exploring Philadelphia, Hiram walks into a bakery that belongs to Mars, a Black man whose wife is a cousin of the Whites. Mars gifts Hiram a piece of gingerbread and the smell and taste of it unlock a memory in his mind. Hi experiences Conduction for the fourth time in his life. He is transported back to the kitchen at Lockless, where his Aunt Emma sneaks him ginger snaps that she is baking for Master Howell. When he returns to the present he is in the same place but on a different bench.

The following day Hiram accompanies Raymond and Otha to help free a woman named Mary Bronson and her young son. On a boat docked on the Delaware River, they find Mary in the company of a white man. Raymond approaches them and declares that he is there to carry out Mary’s request for freedom. At first the slaveholder resists but a crowd gathers and taunts him. Mary and her son stand behind Raymond and they all depart the docks together.

Back at the Underground’s office, Otha interviews Mary while Hiram takes notes. Mary was a cook who worked for others and split her earnings with her master. But when the master died a low white took over. He kept all of Mary’s earnings, beat her, and sold her sons. Mary implores Otha to free her husband and sons who are still in the South. But Otha says since this is beyond their power.

Hiram begins his employment at a woodworking shop. One night he goes to eat dinner with Otha White’s family. Their kindness and love strike Hiram, who socializes and begins to let down his guard. After dinner, Otha tells Hiram his story. When Otha was a child their master freed his father, who went to work up north. Later, his mother, Viola, escaped with Otha and his brother Lambert and the family reunited. But the master sent the hounds to capture them, along with their freeborn siblings, Raymond and Patsy. Eventually, Viola escaped again but she was only able to bring her youngest children with her. The master sent Otha and Lambert further south. There, Lambert died and Otha made a family with a woman named Lydia. Eventually, Otha managed to get out and make his way to Philadelphia, but his wife and children remain in the South.

In Philadelphia, Hiram begins to experience Conduction more frequently. But rather than filling him with joy at unlocking his memories, it causes feelings of fatigue, agony, and a deep sense of loss. In this mood, he decides to leave Philadelphia and the Underground. He walks aimlessly all day, but as night falls he decides to turn around. As he makes his way home, the Ryland’s Hounds of the North catch him. They drive him and others for a few hours before stopping to make camp. Suddenly, someone shoots and kills the hounds and frees Hiram and the other captives. It is Micajah Bland. Micajah leads them into the forest where they meet up with a woman known as Moses, a legendary member of the Underground who is famous for possessing a powerful form of Conduction.

On the way back to Philadelphia Hiram confides in Bland about how painful it is for him that he is free and Sophia is not. The following day, Raymond, Otha, and Bland apologize to Hiram for all of the mistreatment he suffered at the Virginia station. They tell him that Sophia is back at Lockless and promise to try to free her. One day, Raymond calls Hiram to his house and explains that before freeing Sophia, they must first free Otha’s wife and children from Alabama. Raymond asks Hiram to assist Bland in this mission, but makes it clear that this should be of his own free will. Hiram agrees, and spends the rest of the day and night at Raymond’s house, reading through the carefully documented stories of all of the fugitives that the Philadelphia Underground has helped to free.

The following night he goes to Micajah Bland’s house to discuss the upcoming mission. He feels anger rising in him as he thinks of how Corrine left Sophia in slavery, and he again experiences Conduction: he switches seats with Bland. After dinner, Bland walks Hiram back to his room. On the way, he explains that he saw Moses perform Conduction once before. However, Moses has her own rules, and cannot simply perform Conduction for everyone. Bland also tells Hi the story of how he met Corrine when she was a young student at an institute for ladies' education in New York. Corrine would sneak out to abolitionist lectures and they recruited her to expand their war into the South.


In this section of The Water Dancer, Hiram becomes more acquainted with his power of Conduction. In his third experience of this power, the gingerbread serves as a strong symbol of Hiram’s newfound freedom, at the same time as it ties him to the Tasked life from which he comes. As Hiram eats the gingerbread, he sees “Philadelphians of all color and kind” and realizes “that this was the freest I had ever been in my life.” His first bite of the pastry transports Hi to a dream-like state in the kitchen at Lockless. There his Aunt Emma secretly passes him a couple of the ginger snaps that she is baking for Master Howell.

In the context of Lockless, she must give Hi the cookies in secret. She justifies her disobedient act by saying that family must look out for one another, and that in her view Lockless belongs to Hiram anyway. But on his very first day exploring Philadelphia, Hiram can enjoy the treat freely and in public. Whiles Coates contrasts Hiram’s two encounters with ginger sweets—the first as a Tasked man and the second as a free man—he also draws a strong parallel between them through the theme of family ties.

In both situations, kind elders gift him a pastry and remind Hiram of the importance of family looking out for one another. In the kitchen at Lockless, Hiram’s blood relative who he hardly remembers, his Aunt Emma, risks her own status to give Hiram a pleasurable treat. In Philadelphia, while Mars is not Hiram’s blood relative, he considers Hiram part of their family and treats him as such. His gesture indicates that in the North, strong links of love and solidarity make up a support system among the free Black community.

Hiram feels his newfound sense of freedom even more deeply when he helps the Whites to free Mary Bronson. When Raymond speaks defiantly to Mary’s former master, the crowd at the docks and the law of Philadelphia back him up. At the same time, Mary’s story again forces Hiram to confront the limits of freedom and of the Underground’s efforts. Mary tells Otha that if the Underground can’t reunite her family that remains enslaved in the South, then they “ain’t got the power of freedom...your freedom is thin and your church and your city hold nothing for me.”

Back at Bryceton, Hiram discovered that in the South, the work of the Underground is not about freedom but about war. Now, as a free man in the North, Hi comprehends that while the Underground can physically free some enslaved people, they cannot return all that slavery has taken away from them. Mary Bronson longs for a deeper freedom, “freedom that extended to all of her blood. For what did it mean to be free, in a city such as this, when those you hold to most are still Tasked? What was I without Sophia, without my mother, without Thena?”

Coates uses metaphor to highlight all of the non-physical things that enslaved people have lost, and which physical freedom cannot recover. Hiram uses the metaphors of fog and smoke to describe his loss of his mother and of his memory of her. Meanwhile, in discussing his separation from his wife and children, Otha describes how “[t]here are so many holes in me, so many pieces cut away. All those lost years...All my losses.”

At the same time as he accepts that there are limits to physical liberation, Hiram gains a deeper appreciation of the Underground’s work through his relationship with the White family. When he goes to the Whites' house for dinner, Hiram feels deeply moved by the love and support they show each other and which they extend to him, and by the way they support their children’s endeavors. Hi later tells Raymond that while at Bryceton he came to know the Underground’s noble fight, in Philadelphia he has come to truly understand what they are fighting for: the future. This understanding inspires Hiram to become a true agent of the Underground, not through obligation but through his own free will.