The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 28 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next day, Hiram heads to Lockless, feeling overwhelmed with emotion. To his shame, he finds himself praying that Lockless has somehow been spared from the ruin that has taken over the whole of Elm County. When he gets to the plantation, he doesn’t recognize any of the small number of enslaved workers laboring in the field. Hiram sees Howell sitting on the porch. He greets him politely and Howell embraces him, crying, repeating the words “My boy.” Although Hiram has only been gone a year, Howell looks a whole decade older. Howell makes a horrified remark about Hiram’s clothing, saying he can provide some better clothes for him.
Howell’s emotional embrace of Hiram suggests that he may have softened in his old age and grief. Howell likely imagined that Hiram would always be around, a faithful and dependable presence in his life. Hiram’s absence left Howell totally alone, without any immediate family members. Of course, any sympathy the reader might be inclined to feel for Howell will be heavily curtailed by the fact that he has separated countless enslaved people from their own families.
Themes
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Howell asks how Hiram is finding it at Corrine’s, then adds that, seeing as Roscoe was smaller than Hiram, it might be better if Hiram took some of Maynard’s old clothes instead. He also says that Hiram can stay in Maynard’s old room. Howell says that everything is very different at Lockless, and that in his old age he has become very concerned with finding a suitable heir. He regrets letting Hiram go to work for Corrine. He feels sure that Hiram will do a good job of taking Roscoe’s place, but he also wants him to do more, to help oversee the running of the plantation. Hiram agrees, and Howell expresses his relief. He says that his two great regrets in life are letting go of Rose, then letting go of Hiram.
It now becomes clear that this whole time, Howell thought that Hiram was working at Bryceton, which is why he doesn’t appear angry at all about Hiram having run away. His desire to dress Hiram in Maynard’s clothes, give him Maynard’s room, and hand over the management of Lockless to him indicates that he is distressed by the prospect of not having a suitable heir. Yet the fact that Howell has denied Hiram his heritage up until this point again curtails any sympathy for his plight.  
Themes
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Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
That evening, Hiram finds that he doesn’t recognize any of the kitchen staff either. They are old, and thus must have been purchased because older enslaved people are the cheapest to buy. Hiram serves dinner and then joins Howell for a drink in his study. He then goes to his old room, which is just as he left it. He hears Thena humming, but when he approaches her, she ignores him. He apologizes to her, saying that he was wrong for how he treated her, particularly considering she is “all the family [he] ha[s].” Thena looks at him suspiciously, and Hiram keeps talking, apologizing ever more profusely. Finally, she takes his hand and squeezes it, before asking him to hand her a piece of fabric for her sewing.
Thena’s reluctant and somewhat suspicious display of tenderness is all the more moving given how difficult it evidently is for her to express it. Having lost her children after they were sold, Thena was forced to endure the loss of her surrogate child when Hiram left Lockless, too. Yet she loves him enough to cautiously welcome him back, despite how painful the entire experience must have been for her.
Themes
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Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Hiram gathers a few possessions from his old room, including the coin. Then he dresses Howell in his nightclothes and puts him to bed. The next day, Hiram brings Corrine, Amy, and Hawkins over for lunch; Corrine and Howell eat alone. After the guests leave and Hiram has served Howell dinner, he goes down to see Thena. They eat together in silence. Thena asks if Hiram has seen Sophia yet, telling him she’s just down on the Street. She doesn’t see Nathaniel much, as he is usually in Tennessee. Corrine has made some kind of “arrangement” wherein Sophia is largely left alone to do what she wants.
While Corrine might be condemned for keeping it a secret from Hiram that Sophia was back at Lockless, it is also clear that she has taken measures to make sure that Sophia is alright. Indeed, if Corrine had told Hiram Sophia was here, it is very possible he might have tried to come back to get her, and thus Corrine’s actions—as they often are—are both brutal and prudent.
Themes
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The next day is Sunday, and in the afternoon, Hiram goes down to the Street, which has “fallen into disrepair.” According to Thena, Sophia is living in the cabin that Hiram and Thena used to share. When Hiram sees her, she is holding a baby, and he can tell that she is “different.” Sophia greets him in a teasing way. When she sees him looking at the baby, she assures him that she isn’t his, then says her name is Caroline. Sophia says she worried about Hiram, wondering what had happened to him, and that she talks to Caroline about him.
Of course, one of the most horrifying aspects of family separation is the fact that the loved ones from whom one is separated will likely change in ways that are impossible to predict. This is true of Sophia, who is now a mother and also “different” in some other, fundamental sense. This difference emphasizes the distance that has appeared between her and Hiram.
Themes
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Sophia tells Hiram about the vast number of people who have been sold from Lockless. Looking at Caroline, Hiram sees from the color of her eyes that she must be Nathaniel’s daughter. Suddenly, Hiram feels as if he wants to flee from Sophia and never see her again, yet another part of him is horrified by this instinct. Speaking again about all the people who have been sold off, Sophia says, “They are killing us all.” She says it is good to see Hiram, who has come back from the dead twice: once after falling into the Goose, and once after being captured by Ryland.
This is another reminder that, like all people, Hiram is flawed. His horror at realizing that Caroline is Nathaniel’s daughter and his instinct to run away are not exactly commendable, but understandable. Indeed, Hiram must struggle internally to overpower the selfish instincts within himself.
Themes
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Later that evening, Hiram expresses his hurt that Thena didn’t tell him about Caroline. He’s realized that Sophia would have been pregnant when she escaped with him, and that this is probably the reason why she chose to come. He claims that he was straightforward with Sophia while she was not with him, but Thena thinks this is a disingenuous interpretation.
Hiram’s anger that Sophia misled him by not revealing that she wanted to run away because she was pregnant is clearly caused by feelings of romantic disappointment. He dreamed that Sophia wanted to be with him, but really, her main motivation was Caroline.
Themes
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Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon