And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life, and though there were other bridges spanning the river Goose, they would have bound her and brought her across this one, because this was the bridge that fed into the turnpike that twisted its way through the green hills and down the valley before bending in one direction, and that direction was south.
–Ta-Nehisi Coates - The Water Dancer - c. 2019
I haven’t read a great many books set in the “old south”. Many years ago I did read Gone with the wind. I’m sure I must have read more, but to be honest none are jumping into my memory. It is a hard time to write about. From the white POV and you are telling the story of the opressor. From the slaves’ side it is hard to escape the misery, and how does that make for an entertaining read. You might even veer too close to torture porn.
In The Water Dance Coates succeeds in writing a novel that does nothing to hide the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, yet he never dwells on the physical violence. It is present, how could it not be? but there are no lingering descriptions, instead it is the normality of the horror that is presented. How slavery destroys people, their cultures, their history, and how it tries to take away their future.
Blending historical facts with magical realism this is a book that forces the reader to confront the reality that no romantic delusion can ever hide the fact that the “grand old south” was an evil creation, and the destruction it wrought is still felt today. You cannot take away a culture, erase it, and then say “oops, sorry” and carry on as before. History isn’t just in the past, it impacts upon us all.