Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The American Daughters by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

The American Daughters
by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
304 pages
Published February 2024 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary: 
Ady, a curious, sharp-witted girl, and her fierce mother, Sanite, are inseparable. Enslaved to a businessman in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the pair spend their days dreaming of a loving future and reminiscing about their family’s rebellious and storied history. When mother and daughter are separated, Ady is left hopeless and directionless until she stumbles into the Mockingbird Inn and meets Lenore, a free Black woman with whom she becomes fast friends. Lenore invites Ady to join a clandestine society of spies called the Daughters. With the courage instilled in her by Sanite—and with help from these strong women—Ady learns how to put herself first. So begins her journey toward liberation and imagining a new future. 

The American Daughters is a novel of hope and triumph that reminds us what is possible when a community bands together to fight for their freedom.

My Thoughts:
In that way that the books we're reading can sometimes have remarkable similarities, I chanced to be reading The American Daughters just as I was listening to Jesmyn Ward's Let Us Descend. Two books about young women enslaved in the antebellum South but the similarities didn't end there. Both young women were raised by strong women who gave them hope where there seemed no possibility of it. Two young women who find themselves in New Orleans. 

Here there is no supernatural element to allow Ady to escape, only her own strength and a secret society of free and enslaved black women who use their positions, wits, and courage to undermine those who enslave and keep them down. In The American Daughters we see all of the brutality and horror we expect to see in a novel about enslaved people. We see the complicated relationships between slaves, the communities they formed, the ways they found to survive. In Ady, we also see how some enslaved persons had the ability, limited as it was, to move about in cities and how free blacks allowed to flourish while also being kept down at the same time. 

A person can read this book simply for the surface story it tells and enjoy reading about these strong women and the ways they fought back and survived the psychological and physical torture that was their daily life. It would be a good book on that count alone (although the reader might notice some jarring places in the narrative). 

It is always amazing to me the way that authors can find new and original ways to tell stories we thought we already knew. Here Ruffin tells us, early on, that this is the work of a number of people, that it has been added to over time. We are looking at this story from the outside, as people in the future examine the text, trying to determine what is original and true, what has been added, who has the authority to make alterations and additions. It's a work of fiction that makes us question what is true in the nonfiction we read. This book makes me wonder how much of the South's failure might have been because their efforts were being undermined by the very people they were fighting to keep down. Of course, it also makes me question whether or not those other works are accurate, either, relying as they will have done, on the works that survived that time. 

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