The Hamilton Spectator

The Resistance

Enslaved women in the South gather informatio­n for the Union during the Civil War.


MAURICE CARLOS RUFFIN’S stirring new novel, “The American Daughters,” brings a little-known aspect of the Civil War to vivid life in a tale of enslaved women working as resistance fighters against the Confederac­y. Across the South such women risked danger and

death to act as saboteurs, spies and scouts for the Union.

In antebellum New Orleans, young Ady and her mother, Sanite, live and work at the townhouse of their cruel enslaver John du Marche. Sanite endures rape and assault but, even in the face of such degradatio­ns, she teaches her daughter to remain defiant in mind and spirit. “You can’t let them make you forget you’re a person,” she tells Ady. Mother and child are fiercely devoted, bound together for solace and survival.

When sharp-eyed Ady is 12, a hideous event forces the pair to escape to the bayou surroundin­g the city. As they flee, Sanite searches for a hidden community of free Black people where she’d lived until she and infant Ady were captured by “pattyrolle­rs” — armed crews who searched for runaways — and enslaved by du Marche. In the woods and swamps, Sanite teaches Ady how to fish and hunt, to find medicinal plants and fend for herself. Sanite also demonstrat­es that sometimes, the only choice an enslaved woman has is to kill — or risk being killed. Ady will soon have to put that lesson to the test. Eventually, the pair is caught and forcibly returned to du Marche.

Ruffin’s portrait of his hometown, New Orleans, illuminate­s a time and place where free Black people and enslaved people had to carry passes while navigating

KATE MANNING’S recent novels are “Gilded Mountain” and “My Notorious Life.” the streets, but still managed to preserve their own culture and create moments of joy where they could. For instance, running errands, away from du Marche, Ady finds comfort at the Mockingbir­d Inn, an integrated joint where visitors drink and dance and a few plot and scheme. Here, Ady is initiated into an undergroun­d network of resistance fighters who, because they’re enslaved in Confederat­e homes, are well situated to spy for the Union.

Ruffin’s plot turns on the question of whether and how young Ady will risk revenge on du Marche, who has become a powerful Confederat­e officer. The story pulses with plenty of action, but Ruffin’s focus is on the love between mother and

The story pulses with plenty of action, but Ruffin’s focus is on the love between mother and child.

child — and on the ties between women who find and forge families in the midst of wrenching cruelty.

“The American Daughters” joins novels by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Kaitlyn Greenidge and Colson Whitehead, to name just three, that reanimate a longsuppre­ssed history through sweeping stories of people whose free labor built this country. And Ruffin’s title serves as a sharp rebuke to certain un-American daughters: the United Daughters of the Confederac­y. For almost 130 years the U.D.C. has spread a false history of slavery as a benign economic institutio­n, propagatin­g a whitewashe­d myth of enslaved people as passive and content and slavers as genteel all-knowing employers.

The Confederat­e Daughters erected monuments to this lie and made sure it was written into American textbooks. We’re now seeing its resurgence as more than two dozen states, among them Florida and Texas, Pennsylvan­ia and Tennessee, ban books, including ones that deal honestly with the history of slavery and the civil rights movement.

Because of such whitewashi­ng — and the scarcity of first-person accounts by enslaved people — the real texture of these lives has long been missing from our understand­ing of the past. It is this texture that “The American Daughters” captures in strong prose. Ady feels the “presence of the river, aching past the town.” Even as du Marche assaults her, the girl knows that “the real Ady was off in the chasm between the blowing out of a candle and the velveteen darkness.”

Such lyricism is occasional­ly marred by clunky repetition. Variations of the phrase “slave labor camp, also called a plantation” appear more than two dozen times over the course of the novel. The repetition jolts the reader out of the story like a flashing billboard on a dark road. However, it does serve to remind us that it’s long past time to retire “plantation” — that moss-covered, julep-sipping, hoop-skirted cover-up for the true brutalitie­s of slavery’s American gulag.

Ruffin’s vibrant novel reminds us that we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to a truthful reckoning with our violent past and its impact on the present day. Fiction is an ideal medium for that reckoning, and honest language matters: Indeed, a “plantation” was a slave labor camp; enslaved people fought for their own freedom; and women were resistance fighters. In telling this important, neglected history with imaginatio­nfueled research, “The American Daughters” offers an inspiring story of people who show a way forward with their perseveran­ce, bravery and love.


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