Bookshelf: Enslaved woman turns spy in Ruffin’s ‘American Daughters’

Author pays homage to captive women by giving them the victory they deserve.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin is the author of "The American Daughters."
Courtesy of One World

Credit: One World

Credit: One World

Maurice Carlos Ruffin is the author of "The American Daughters." Courtesy of One World

New Orleans author Maurice Carlos Ruffin received high praise for his 2019 literary debut, “We Cast a Shadow,” a satirical look at race in America set in the near future. For his new book, he steps into the past. “The American Daughters” (One World, $28) is a riveting coming-of-age story about an enslaved girl’s quest for survival, self-identity and love; the community of women who aid her; and the courageous efforts they take to subvert the Confederacy.

The daughter of a Native American mother and a runaway slave father, Ady grows up working alongside her mother, Sanite, as slaves in John du Marche’s New Orleans townhouse. Because du Marche spends most of his time away at his plantation, Ady and Sanite are often left to their own devices and spend much of their time running errands around the city.

While traversing the city one day, Ady befriends Lenore, who owns a tavern and an inn that she runs with a band of other strong, free Black women. At their encouragement, Ady learns to voice her opinions and accepts the offer of a paying job.

Ady soon discovers the women are spies for a network called the American Daughters dedicated to subverting the slavers. “For our mothers” is their identifying motto. When she learns that du Marche is a major player in efforts to expand slavery westward and, once war breaks out, to defeat the Union, she becomes involved in the American Daughters’ clandestine operations.

How those denied freedom define it is a recurring theme in “The American Daughters.” Ady’s father James was free but put himself into captivity to be with his wife and newborn, only to be later sold to a plantation in Oklahoma, never to see his family again.

After they’re captured following a failed escape, Sanite tells Ady, “You know what is freedom? You my freedom. My life out there don’t mean anything. My life in here ain’t much either. But you my daughter. My joy. That’s why we here.”

As a child, Ady encounters a young free Black girl tossing a ball on a street in New Orleans. The concept of play is foreign to Ady, and she is mystified by the girl’s actions. But “there was one thing Ady understood about the girl. She was free.”

Exercising a measure of power where she can find it, Ady weighs the importance of a name. At birth she was named Adebimpe — Ady for short. But to her white slavers she is Antoinette, her “false name.” Referring to Du Marche, Ady observes proudly, “I’ve never said his name aloud, and I’ve never called him my master, not a once.”

Ruffin shares Ady’s predilection. Every time the book mentions a plantation, it’s identified as a “slave labor camp also called a plantation.” The repetition drives home a constant reminder: Human atrocities occurred behind that genteel façade; don’t ever forget it.

“The American Daughters” is so captivating and vividly rendered, it’s easy for some of the more fantastical elements of the narrative to slip by unnoticed at first. But eventually questions start to mount. Like, how is Ady able to get away with holding down a regular job? Why was she taught to read and write? How does she avoid pregnancy?

When the story draws to a close in a crescendo of fortuitous events, the reader feels a little like they’re left holding the bag as the intentional implausibility of it all becomes apparent. In the vein of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Ruffin’s final scenes illustrate how we wish things played out.

It’s in the epilogue where Ruffin makes his point. Set at a conference in 2172, the provenance and veracity of “The American Daughters” — presented as a thinly fictionalized telling of historic events — is the topic of an academic lecture. While cleverly envisioning a time after the second U.S. Civil War in an era when writing with pen and paper is deemed archaic, the epilogue deflates the novel’s triumphant conclusion, reminding us that in the realm of slavery, happy endings are make-believe.

What truly resonates in “The American Daughters” is the spirit of the women — Sanite, Ady and others inspired by Ruffin’s ancestors — who are stand-ins for the millions of enslaved girls and women who endured unspeakable hardships in this country. “The American Daughters” serves as an homage to their courage and sacrifice.

Georgia Center for the Book and A Cappella Books present Maurice Carlos Ruffin in conversation with author Ruth Watson at 7 p.m. March 4 at Decatur Library. For details go to

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at