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"American Daughters" | Reviewed by William Winkler

New Orleans native Maurice Carlos Ruffin teaches creative writing at Louisiana State University and holds a law degree from Loyola University in his hometown. His first novel, “We Cast a Shadow,” is set in a dystopian United States of the not-too-distant future, a nation in which racial disharmony has reached unprecedented levels.

Ruffin’s current novel, “The American Daughters,” is historical fiction set in New Orleans in the years leading up to and encompassing the Civil War.

The novel’s opening chapter introduces us to Ady (or Antoinette, or Adibimpe, depending on the context) as she and her accomplice, Leonore, prepare to do harm to John du Marche, Ady’s owner. Du Marche purchased Ady and her mother years earlier. He procured a tutor to teach Ady French and fine penmanship. Du Marche’s intentions toward Ady and, until her death, Ady’s mother Sanite were never honorable in the least.

After Ady and her mother’s unsuccessful escape attempt, they are returned to du Marche’s plantation, where Ady developed a relationship with a matriarchal figure named Baba Cici, who taught the young girl some of the medicinal lore of the African people.

This lore was unable to save Ady’s mother from dying of yellow fever after she had given birth to du Marche’s child, a boy, who was sold to another slave owner as soon as he was old enough to be of use.

After their capture Ady and her mother were brought from the plantation into du Marche’s town house in New Orleans where Ady was to serve as housekeeper. During her tenure in the town house, Ady surreptitiously took up employment at the Mockingbird, an inn and tavern owned and operated by Leonore for the benefit of whites and free Creole blacks. It is at the Mockingbird that Ady learns of the existence of The American Daughters, an undercover network of black women working to provide intelligence to the abolitionists of the north who were attempting to stifle the growing separatist ambitions of the slave owning south.

Ruffin paints a bleak picture of New Orleans in the mid 19th century. Even so-called “free” blacks, be they Creole or freed slaves, lived under a persistent cloud of surveillance and suspicion. Ady’s treatment at the hands of du Marche and his family paints a brutal picture of the concept of slavery, humans owning other humans.

Astute readers may notice the occasional use of anachronistic language throughout the book, and the repeated use of the phrase “the slave labor camp known as a plantation” in its first half. Some might attribute this to stylistic lapses on the author’s part, but the Epilogue makes it clear that this use of language is a skillful technique to explain the narrative’s history.

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