The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5 – 9


After nearly dying in the river Goose, Hiram wakes up, first in the fields of Lockless by the monument of its founder, Archibald Walker, and then in Maynard’s room at Lockless. He learns that Maynard is dead and that he himself has been fighting for his life for three days. Sophia visits him, and then his father, who is heartbroken at the loss of Maynard.

Hi learns from Sophia that it was Hawkin’s, Corrine’s man, who found him by the shore of the river Goose. He finds this strange since he clearly remembers waking up a couple of miles away, by the monument of Archibald Walker. At night, once everything is quiet, he ventures out to the field to try to set his memory straight. He runs into Sophia and they walk together. Sophia tells him wistfully of her old life in Carolina before being tasked in Virginia. The next morning, Hi sets out to the monument and finds the missing copper coin that his father tossed to him all those years ago.

In the days after Maynard’s death Hiram is told to rest, but he tries to distract himself by fixing up old furniture. One day, Hawkins calls him to the Lockless estate to speak with Corinne. She tells him she is heartbroken due to the death of Maynard and asks for details about his death. To try to comfort her, Hi tells Corrine that Maynard saved his life. Corrine suggests that Hiram may one day come to live and task with her. Hi feels that Corinne is up to something and that his days at Lockless may soon come to an end.

The Walkers cannot find Maynard’s body but they decide to gather for a funeral at Christmastime. The Tasked have a parallel Chistmas bonfire of their own. They speak of the foolishness of the Walkers who praise and love Maynard in death far more than in life. But Thena reveals that it’s all just a plot for Corrine to take ownership of Howell’s land and all of his Tasked. Later, they discuss a story about Hiram’s grandmother, Santi Bess, who supposedly helped a group of Tasked people escape back to Africa simply by leading them into the river Goose. At the Christmas party Hi watches Sophia dance beautifully. They go for a walk, drink ale, and talk. Hi feels strongly attracted to Sophia. She locks arms with him and puts her head on his shoulder.

Hi drives Sophia to Nathaniel Walker’s estate, as he does every Friday. They speak about the possibility of a life beyond Lockless, beyond the Task. Sophia dreams of a family and knows Nathaniel will only let her loose once she is already used up. Sophia wants to run away and suggests to Hi that they could do it together.

Hi goes to see Georgie Parks and they go to speak by a pond. Georgie again tries to dissuade Hiram from trying to escape, but Hiram tells him that he and Sophia are planning to run away no matter what. Finally, Georgie gives in and tells them to meet him at the same pond a week later. On the way back, Hiram runs into Corrine’s man, Hawkins, and his sister, Amy. They ask him about going to see Georgie and he assumes they are spying on him for the Quality. Then Mr. Fields comes to meet with Amy and Hawkins, who seem nervous. Hiram feels that this encounter is strange, just like Hawkins’s apparent lie about finding him by the river Goose. But he is so preoccupied with his escape plan that he brushes the whole thing off.

Hi goes to pick up Sophia from Nathaniel’s. She repeats that she must get out and Hi says he wants to do it with her. The next day they again go for a walk, and Hi tells Sophia that they will meet Georgie by the pond. He doesn’t know much, but assumes they will enter into an underground world in the swamps where men can live free. Sophia tells Hi that she likes him, but that she will like him far less if his plan is to “make yourself up as another Nathaniel….Ain’t no freedom for a woman in trading a white man for a colored.” Hi promises that he wants Sophia to be free, and for any relating between them to be of her choosing. When Hi returns to the house he finds Thena waiting for him. She scolds him for running around with “Nathaniel Walker’s girl.” Hi feels angry and treats her cruelly but immediately regrets doing so.

On the agreed-upon night Hi and Sophia meet in the dark and make their way through the woods to the pond. When they arrive they hear voices. Georgie appears in the company of five white men carrying a rope. These are Ryland’s Hounds, the patrols of low whites who enforce the order of the Quality and run Ryland’s Jail. Georgie leaves and the hounds bring Hi and Sophia by pistol-point with their hands tied to the jail, where they are chained and left out in the cold night. Hi can’t find words and can only manage to say he’s sorry. Sophia makes a great effort to move with her chains closer to Hiram so that they are able to touch and give each other warmth.


In Chapters 5-9, Coates continues to develop the idea of Conduction, which relies on the power of memory. The Quality take everything from the Tasked. Sometimes they can even sever those they enslave from their memories. This is the case with Hiram, who cannot remember his mother. However, Coates suggests that when the Tasked are able to hold onto their memory, it is a source of great power that is beyond the understanding and control of the Quality. As Hiram puts it, the Tasked are close to the earth, and thus “close to a power that baffled the scholars and flummoxed the Quality, a power, like our music, like our dance, that they cannot grasp, because they cannot remember.”

The white, slave-owning class is marked by the loss of its power of memory. Their culture is based around obtaining privilege through abusing the land and abusing other people. In this way, they have forgotten their connection to the land and to their own humanity. The Water Dancer suggests that slavery operates not only by physically holding people captive, but also by destroying the ties of memory, culture, and family of the people it oppresses. Thus, the act of remembering where one comes from and the loved ones who are no longer present is a powerful tool of struggle against slavery.

In this way, Coates uses the magical power of Conduction to highlight the very real power of memory as a tool of struggle against oppression. In reality, memory and history have played a very important role in many movements against white supremacy. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Black nationalists promoted empowerment through strengthening black culture and refusing to assimilate into white culture. Some Black nationalists also supported repatriation to Africa. In recent years, Black Lives Matter protests have focused on memory and history by promoting the removal and destruction of monuments to slave-owners.

In this section of The Water Dancer, Coates continues to explore the deep contradictions at the heart of the slave-owning class. On the one hand, Howell Walker admits that Maynard can hardly be trusted with his own life, and he constantly asks Hiram to watch over him. But on the other hand, he views Maynard as an extension of himself and his noble lineage. This illusion only increases after Maynard’s death, and Hiram is disturbed when Howell suggests that Maynard loved him and must have saved him. This contradiction in the Walker family is in turn an allegory for the culture of the Quality. The enslaved possess the knowledge and wisdom that makes their whole society run, yet this fact is hidden and the Tasked are denigrated.

As Hi matures, his understanding of these contradictions grows deeper. The symbolism of the copper coin that his father gifted him changes to reflect this growing understanding. When Hiram was a child, the coin that his father tossed him symbolized his entry into the world of the Quality, and his belief that he could rise into their privileged ranks. Moreover, he believes that he will be able to use his intelligence to save Lockless from the hard times it is facing.

Hiram’s near-death experience in the river Goose is a climactic moment in which his thinking changes. Once he is out of the river Hi instinctively reaches into his pocket to look for the coin, only to find that it is no longer there. By the time Hiram finds the coin at the monument of his grandfather, the great founder of Lockless, he still describes the coin as “my token into the Realm—but not the Realm I’d long thought.” Hiram no longer believes that being granted some degree of access into the world of the Quality will allow him to lead a grand life or to save Lockless. Rather, the coin comes to symbolize the strange power of Conduction, and the mysterious manner in which he magically transported himself from the depths of the river Goose to a field at Lockless.

The Water Dancer is a novel about slavery. It is a first-person retrospective narrative, since an older Hiram tells the story looking back. In this sense, it is also a coming-of-age novel. Coates draws out the theme of coming of age through Hiram’s relationship with Thena. Before Hi tries to escape, Thena questions him about running around with Sophia. Hi reacts in an immature and heartless way. Almost instantly he feels ashamed for mistreating the only person who truly cared for him. However, he beats these feelings back with anger. Reflecting back on this moment, an older Hi realizes that he responded to Thena “not with sadness or honesty but with anger and righteousness.”