The protagonist in Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s novel “We Cast A Shadow” does not have a name. The absence of his name is hardly noticeable throughout the story, except for the first line in which he narrates, “My name doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that I’m a phantom, a figment, a man who was mistaken for waitstaff twice that night.” In many ways, his name really doesn’t matter. It is his experiences as a Black American, a father with a white wife and biracial child, that help readers connect to him more than his name ever could. Without his name, the only thing readers have to judge him by are his thoughts and actions. Ruffin’s deliberate choice to leave his protagonist nameless places a focus on who he is and what he believes, giving the story a decidedly personal feel.
“We Cast A Shadow” is Ruffin’s debut novel, a project he has been working on since 2014. An earlier version of the novel under the working title of “All of the Lights” won a gold medal in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom writing competition. His short story “The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You” received the 2014 Iowa Review award for fiction. He earned an MFA from the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop and is also a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.
The novel, which is heavily influenced by Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” revolves around the man, his wife and their son, Nigel, in an America where a procedure has been developed that gives “doctors” the power to make people white. Although the man and his family seem happy and content at first, it is soon revealed that the narrator is tormented with the knowledge of something he believes will bring endless pain and suffering to his son’s life: Nigel is becoming Black.
It all started when Nigel was born and his father noticed a small black patch at the top of his eye. The narrator’s life soon becomes a scramble to keep Nigel out of the sun and away from anything that could cause his skin to continue darkening. He soon realizes, however, that there is nothing he can do to stop the patch from spreading, so he turns to what he believes is the only answer he has left: finding enough money to send his son in for the whitening procedure.
Ruffin has crafted a heavy, thought provoking novel that leads readers to grapple with questions of race and social responsibility that are highly relevant to the current political climate. While the story deals with a range of issues from corrupt law firms and politicians to the activist/terrorist group ADZE, it truly shines in the focus it places on the familial relationships within it. The narrator’s relationship with his wife is strained yet loving, a realistic example of two people struggling to care for their son and give him the best life they possibly can. His relationship with Nigel is even more complex and touching. He claims he is determined and willing to do whatever he can to keep his son safe, but fails to realize the cost his actions will have on his son’s life, and eventually, his entire family.
The entire novel is narrated from the father’s point of view, and it is revealed in the later chapters that it is in fact an account of his time as a parent written for his son to read. It makes for a gripping and heart-wrenching story and a valuable addition to the fiction canon. But mostly, it serves as a reminder that at the heart of politics and turmoil there is family, and that is what motivates us and gives us hope.