Hiram and Bland begin to work on the daring mission to free Otha’s family from Alabama. For Hiram to forge passes they must obtain a sample of the writing style of their master, Daniel McKiernan. To do so, they break into the home of Elon Simpson, a wealthy white man in Philadelphia who illegally engages in the slave trade with McKiernan. One night when Simpson is out of town, Bland and Hiram meet one of his white servants, Chalmers, who they bully into letting them into Simpson’s home. There Bland picks the lock of a chest containing letters from McKiernan. With these letters, Hiram forges passes that will enable Lydia and her children to travel. The plan is for Bland to help the family escape, then lead them out posing as their owner.
As Bland heads south, Hiram and the others go to upstate New York for an annual gathering of abolitionists. There Hiram encounters a diverse range of people fighting various injustices: women, Native Americans, trade unionists and communists. At the gathering, Hiram also meets Kessiah, Thena’s daughter. She used to watch over Hi when he was a child, although he doesn’t remember it. When Master Howell sold Thena’s children, Kessiah ended up in Maryland and married Elias, a relative of Moses, whose real name is Harriet. Moses freed Kessiah through Conduction and she has been with her and the Underground ever since.
The following evening, Hiram takes a walk in the woods and encounters Harriet. She asks for his help on a mission and he agrees. She suggests that she can help him learn how to better make use of the power of Conduction.
The next day Hiram awakens to a commotion and learns that the hounds have returned Otha’s family to Alabama and killed Micajah Bland. Hiram eventually discovers that Bland managed to row down the Tennessee River with the family until reaching the free country of Indiana. But there one of Otha’s children got sick and they could no longer travel by night. A white man picked them up and brought them to a local jail, where there was a notice out about the runaways. The jail locked up Lydia and the kids and, rather than leaving, Bland kept pushing for their release until they jailed and killed him. Otha is distraught and heartbroken. The members of the Underground come together to comfort him and to mourn for Bland. Hiram initially fears that Bland’s death must have been his fault, since he forged the passes. But the others assure him that this is not the case.
After the conference, Harriet and Kessiah return to Philadelphia with Hiram, and they begin to prepare for Harriet’s mission in Maryland. When the time for the mission comes, they meet at the docks of the Delaware River. Holding her trusty walking stick, Harriet begins to walk out onto the water and Hiram follows, placing his trust in her. A fog encircles them and a green light emerges from Harriet. As they float onward via the power of Conduction, Harriet shows Hiram how Conduction works through the power of memory and storytelling.
She tells him how she grew up in Dorchester, Maryland, where she did hard labor and her masters beat her. And she tells of a young boy named Abe, whose longing for freedom gave Harriet her first taste of Conduction. Abe was an orphan. He was such a fast runner that he always escaped whenever the headman wanted to beat him. One day, frustrated that he couldn’t catch Abe, Galloway threw a weight at him and unintentionally hit Harriet, cracking her skull. Harriet woke up in another time, where she envisioned an army of Abes bearing rifles. On Harriet’s signal they initiated a battle against “this sinful country” and watched “the humiliations of slavery burning like fire.” When Harriet woke up months later she was changed, knowing that one day they would win the battle against slavery.
With the power of Harriet’s story, she and Hiram arrive in the woods of Maryland. But Harriet has tired herself out. She falls backward and Hiram catches her and lays her softly on the ground.
Coates uses the characterization of Micajah Bland to continue to deepen the themes of race and class. While Bland is free because he is white, he struggled because his family was poor and he never received an education. Bland’s father died when he was young. His mother was unable to support the family and he was separated from his sister Laura. He went to fight in the Seminole War, where he witnessed the brutality committed against the Native Americans. This gave him a new perspective on his own struggles. He began to read and study in his spare time, and in this way discovered the cause of abolition.
At the gathering of abolitionists in New York, Hiram discovers a whole new world of radical and inspiring ideas. He encounters women making the case for suffrage and arguing that marriage is a form of bondage; Native Americans denouncing the theft of their land; and trade unionists and communists fighting against factory labor. Each of these causes is different. Yet Hiram realizes that what unites them all is the struggle against some form of slavery. In this way, he understands that the secret war he is helping to wage as a member of the Underground is about far more than undermining the Quality: “we sought not merely to improve the world, but to remake it.”
This realization enables Hiram to regain his hope. When he was young, Hiram hoped to rule Lockless. He hoped to gain admission into the privileged class of the Quality. But as he matured, Hiram realized that this was an impossible fantasy. He tried to escape Lockless. By the time he reached Bryceton, Hiram’s work for the Underground filled him with a sense of empowerment, since he found a way to fight against slavery. But it wasn’t until he went to the North and met a diverse range of free Blacks and abolitionists that Hiram once again felt hope—this time, for the new world that he and his fellow members of the Underground are trying to build.
Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that the character of Moses, or Harriet, refers to the real historical figure, Harriet Tubman. She was one of the most well-known “conductors” of the Underground Railroad. She escorted over 300 enslaved people to freedom. In The Water Dancer it is Harriet who finally helps Hiram understand how the power of Conduction works. In a climactic scene, Harriet conducts Hiram from Delaware to Maryland. She explains that Conduction functions through telling the stories of all of the people that slavery has impacted, disappeared, and killed. As they travel, Hiram and Harriet are linked in “a kind of communion, a chain of memory extending between the two of us,” and which connects their deepest memories of those they have lost.
Harriet tells Hiram that “to forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die….For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.” In Harriet’s dramatic, poetic declaration, Coates brings his reflection on memory to its fullest expression. Slavery separated whole generations from their loved ones, families, homes, and cultures. Physically, these people are lost forever, and even the Underground can do nothing to change this painful reality. Yet the act of remembering maintains a connection with lost loved ones and keeps their memory alive. In this way, Coates presents memory as a form of rebellion against slavery.
The bridge serves as a symbol for this power of memory. Memory is a bridge because it connects the past with the present and people to the loved ones they have lost. In The Water Dancer, Coates turns this bridge of memory into something concrete through the power of Conduction. Using their power of Conduction, Harriet and Hiram can bend reality, opening up a physical bridge that enables them to move Tasked people from slavery to freedom.
Harriet’s nickname, Moses, alludes to the biblical figure who parted the sea with his rod to free the enslaved Hebrews from Egypt. Just like Moses, Harriet uses her walking stick to open up a path to bring enslaved people to freedom. Coates introduces this aspect of magical realism into the novel to highlight the powers that enslaved people have that are beyond the grasp of the white slave-owning class. Despite the great powers of slave-owning society, enslaved people are able to maintain their memory. In this way, they are able to maintain their dreams of a more just world in which families can stay together and live out their lives freely.