Hiram Walker is no ordinary child. Born into slavery on a Virginia tobacco plantation, he lives with the other Tasked—slaves—and witnesses the affluent, arrogant lives of the Quality—plantation owners and their families. Employing his gift of photographic memory, he watches and memorizes his people’s terrible humiliations and excruciating losses, as well as his own. Except for one thing—he can’t remember his mother or how he had lost her.
Besides the gift of memory, Hiram possesses a mysterious power, rumored to also have been held by his grandmother. When Hiram is 19 years old, he is unexpectedly thrown into the Goose River and nearly drowns, but the power saves him, though he has no understanding of how or why. But he does know that what happened “shook forever my sense of a cosmic order. But I was there and saw it happen, and have since seen a great many things that expose the ends of our knowledge and how much more lies beyond it.” Hiram is altered by the experience and knows he needs to escape the clutches of the Quality.
As word of Hiram’s mysterious power spreads, he is taken into the work of the Underground to free slaves. But his journey is fraught with confusing demands and inexplicable degradations, making him unsure of who is friend or foe. In time, he understands the Underground war: “It was not the ancient and honorable kind. No armies amassed at the edges of the field. For every one agent, there were a hundred Quality, and for every Quality, there were a thousand low whites sworn to them. The gazelle does not match claws with the lion—he runs. But we did more than run. We plotted. We instigated. We sabotaged. We poisoned. We destroyed.”
Hiram eventually works for the Underground in the North and experiences his first taste of freedom, but he finds no rest as he longs to free his still-enslaved loved ones. In a strange series of events, he is brought back to the South and finally fulfills a promise through the exercise of his mysterious power.
In this riveting novel for adults, author Ta-Nehisi Coates exposes the atrocities inflicted on slaves and the moral bankruptcy of white plantation owners. More importantly, he portrays characters who experienced and survived slavery and found a way forward, embracing sacrifice so others could have freedom and life. (Penguin Random House)