In "The Prophets," a trailblazing debut novel from 2021, Robert Jones Jr. wrote about two enslaved young men who became lovers in 1830s Mississippi. Jones brought intense depth of feeling and insight to his characters, his women in particular.

In "The American Daughters" the central characters are enslaved women (this time in 1860s New Orleans), and Maurice Carlos Ruffin likewise displays great sensitivity toward his heroines.

While Jones favored flights of imaginative fancy and the interjection of ancient stories, Ruffin mostly sticks to a compelling story, well told.

The novel's triumph is protagonist Ady. Born into slavery, she's about 7 when she and her mother, Sanite, are sold off from a plantation to work in the townhouse of wealthy New Orleans businessman John du Marche, who abuses them verbally, sexually and physically.

Ady's mom, who was not born into slavery, has other ideas. Sanite sees to it that Ady learns to count and read, promising her that "one day you'll be free, and you can't be forgetting who you really is." She imprints the feeling of freedom on Ady by bringing her on walks through the colorful city to buy provisions for the townhouse.

Amid the melting-pot hurly-burly, Ady sees that not all Black people are enslaved: "The only thing that dazzled the innermost reaches of Ady's ... heart more than watching the Free Negroes act audaciously Free were the ships at port."

A harrowing escape into the Louisiana wilderness ends badly for mother and daughter. When Sanite dies of yellow fever, Ady, still a teenager, is returned to New Orleans and her master.

Sneaking off for long walks, she encounters a Black-run inn and its magnetic proprietor, a well-to-do, free Black woman named Lenore.

In keenly observed scenes, Ruffin shows how Ady's life as a slave has left her stunted, blinkered, half-dead. Things as ordinary as a compliment or a gift are foreign to Ady. Ditto something as seemingly simple as friendship. When Lenore gazes at Ady, the girl has "the intense sensation that she was being seen, perhaps for the first time in her life."

Love, war and politics widen Ady's young life. Risking death, she seeks to help new friends — collectively known as the Daughters — who work as spies to undermine slave owners and Confederates and assist abolitionists and the Union Army.

As cooks and housekeepers, these women often had unique access to influential whites. They were helped by the widespread belief that no Black woman had the smarts to engage in such covert operations. This story line, rife with tantalizing and dramatic potential, occupies too few pages of "American Daughters."

When Lenore is set to marry a man favored by her father, Ady rebukes her harshly, but their closeness is rebuilt as the novel hurries to its unbridled happy ending.

In several short chapters and a lengthy epilogue, Ruffin time-travels his narrative, touching down in the 1950s, in 2028 and in 2172 to show how the story of Ady and the Daughters fades in and out of view in different eras and by different authors. These addenda seem disposable to me, as long as we get Ady's old story, which is so vividly told in the here and now.

Claude Peck is a former columnist and editor at the Star Tribune.

The American Daughters

By: Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Publisher: One World, 281 pages, $28.