“Turning the Historical Romance Novel on Its Head”: Laurie Marshall on Leah Angstman’s OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA

When an historical novel is done well it works details of setting and historical context into the story so deftly that we don’t realize we are being educated. Historical novels done poorly can quickly become exposition-heavy slogs that would be well suited for kindling in a remote cottage on the Scottish moors. It is my sincere pleasure to report that Out Front the Following Sea, Leah Angstman’s debut novel, manages to educate and entertain. In other words, although I’ve considered the idea of moving to a remote cottage on the Scottish moors often over the last couple of years, it had nothing to do with this novel.

Angstman’s story is set during King William’s War, a specific period of colonial American history that was previously unfamiliar to me. She includes enough details from her extensive research to make the realities of living in in the colonies in the late 17th century resonate without slowing the pace of the story. Suspicion of local indigenous tribes, shortages of cultivated land and food, and a populace that “others” anyone who doesn’t profess a loyalty to the local militia leaders and the man behind the pulpit on Sunday morning all serve to create a rich backdrop on which to build the tapestry of the novel.

The protagonist of the story, 16-year old Ruth Miner, is a square peg trying (not terribly hard) to fit into what was at the time an extremely round hole. Angstman wastes no time showing us that Ruth’s position in the community is unsteady at best as she attempts to trade for food at the outdoor market:

“Mrs. Pieterszoon.” Ruth nodded to a frumpy woman sitting behind the first cart. “Parsnips all that survived? What will you trade for them?” Ruth moved her hand toward the cart and got her fingers swatted away.

“Ga weg! Ye’ll starve for what I care of it,” Mrs. Pieterszoon said. “Ye shrivel them parsnips like ye shriveled the rest of the crop, and ye’ll be eating a coring iron.” The woman’s chin jutted, a landing rock that ships could spy from sea, and Ruth hastened along to Mrs. Janszoon at the next cart, who wouldn’t deign to reply but threw a sheet over the vegetables.

As we all know, early colonial settlements were populated by immigrants. In Connecticut the French, Dutch, English, and Iroquois Confederacy tribes were all fighting for dominance and boundaries even before England’s fight with France made it across the Atlantic. Add to that the fact that many of the first settlers in the colonies were literal criminals afforded passage to the New World to get them out of their home countries, and you can imagine the pressure a young woman might experience. Angstman communicates this stress without making Ruth’s character simplistic or one-note.

One of my favorite things about the novel is the way Angstman includes colorful snippets of vernacular and foreign words and phrases throughout the story to provide an immersive read. It makes the diversity of characters and origins really come alive. The context in each usage will allow most to understand what’s being said, but for those who need a nudge, there’s an extensive glossary at the back of the book.

In only the second chapter Ruth finds herself in a desperate situation involving a winter of near-starvation and townspeople with torches. It is 17th century America, you know. She is forced to depend on the help of her childhood friend, First Mate Owen Townsend, the son of the captain on a Dutch-built ship named the Primrose. Ruth is a young woman who desperately wants to be independent but is also grateful for the assistance of a strapping young sailor on occasion. She is often the hero of her own story, with Owen stepping in only when the situation, or Ruth, demands it.

For fans of the romance genre, this book will hold its own for you as well. This is no “bodice-ripper” but there is enough affection, and a sprinkling of Ruth-instigated sexy times to keep we who enjoy a roll in the hay with our lessons on the origins of our country set in colonial Connecticut satisfied. Anyway, most will appreciate that ripping a bodice when cloth and sewing notions are in short supply would be insanely impractical:

“I don’t have you caged now.”

She took both of his arms around her, placed his arms flat against the planks on either side of her body, boxing herself between his chest and the wall. “It looks to me like you do.”

“Not like this. Not in here. I—”

I’ve got no desire to hear your whinnying.” She lifted herself to his eye level on the trough. “There is no bed of roses on this ship. I saw your lumpy bunk, and I slept in piss-covered straw.” She grabbed hold of his collar and pulled him into her, and he involuntarily moved one hand to her leg as his passion urged him.

There is plenty of opportunity throughout the novel to be enraged as well. Angstman writes about the patriarchal traditions of the time and the shame of the treatment of indigenous tribes with a deft hand. She doesn’t preach or tell us how to feel but allows us to come to anger on our own. I developed a deeper understanding of some of the challenges of being a woman in the colonies—especially an unattached, poor woman—than I’d had before. And reading about the Pequot tribe hiding in the forest is made more tragic knowing what would transpire over the next two hundred years:

The moon was a sliver, a needle of lightless light. She couldn’t see Askook along the outline of the stone fence, but she made it to their hidden flax rows, retrieved the empty satchel he had left at the base of the chopping block, and replaced it with the full satchel she had been carrying. Words came to her of Helen, of Isabel, their hatred for the savages, the sorrow in Askook’s eyes when she’d told him what the town thought of him, how careful they must be.

Throughout the book, Ruth is surrounded by a cast of characters who embody stereotypical “friends in the village,” but none ever skew to being unbelievable or unnecessary to the story. Even the villain Ruth is forced to contend with in the end is written with a measure of sympathy, and we can imagine that status and social expectations can cause many formerly reasonable people to decay intellectually and philosophically.

There is nothing better than reading the final lines of a book and immediately hoping there will be a sequel. That’s the feeling I had when I finished Out Front the Following Sea, but the story is satisfying enough that even if there isn’t (it was ten years in the making!) I’ll be satisfied to read it again and revisit Ruth and Owen when I’m looking for an adventure.

Out Front the Following Sea, by Leah Angstman. Raleigh, North Carolina: Regal House Publishing, January 2022. $19.95, paper.

Laurie Marshall is a writer and artist working in Northwest Arkansas. Recent stories have been awarded the 2021 Lascaux Flash Fiction Prize, included in the 2022 Bath Flash Fiction Award anthology, and nominated for Best Small Fictions 2022. She reads for Fractured Lit and Longleaf Review. Words and art have been published in Emerge Literary JournalVersificationBending GenresTwin Pies Literary, and Flash Frog, among others. Connect on Twitter @LaurieMMarshall.  

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