Out Front the Following Sea
by Leah Angstman
Regal House Publishing, 2022
Reviewed by Catherine Hayes
Leah Angstman’s debut novel is a tale of one woman’s strength and resilience at a time in which women’s voices were suppressed by the archaic social rules of an early 17th century patriarchal society.
Set during a relatively unexplored period of American history, Angstman introduces readers to her heroine Ruth Miner, an independent and resourceful young woman, who through an unfortunate turn of events finds herself being branded a witch and must escape from her small Puritanical Christian settlement before she loses herself and her life. Ruth finds herself escaping her persecution by her neighbors and townsfolk aboard the ship Primrose, where her long-time friend and romantic interest Owen works on board as a sailor. Understanding of Ruth’s difficult past and unwilling to stand by and watch his friend and love interest be hunted and punished, he takes her aboard the ship and offers her the chance to build a life anew elsewhere.
Angstman immerses her readers in a tale rich with historical detail and adventure and manages to encapsulate in less than 350 pages the plethora of social issues and struggles that occurred in the early American colonies. From the struggles of womanhood to the colonization of Indigenous populations in America to the effects that the political tension between England and France had on the British colonies, Angstman does not hold back in her descriptions of the harsh reality of life for those who were not a member of the hegemonic class of 1689. For that, she should be commended because Angstman is not afraid to combat the popular, diluted narrative that is taught in the school system today. She does not shy away from the dark details that reflect the truth, and it is in those details that her readers are able to see the care and research she put into this novel.
As Angstman so beautifully puts it, “There is a perfect dawn after every storm” and the personal growth that her characters undertake on their journeys- particularly her heroine Ruth- shows that there is cause to hope, and always a reason to persevere even in the darkest of times. For when the patriarchal Puritan society of early America sought to punish Ruth for not conforming to their ideals of womanhood, she fights to claim her right to live as she will, her perfect dawn, even though she must go through many turbulent ‘storms’ to obtain that dawn.
“Of all the things to know, I know nothing at all …we are shackled to this dictation, this ‘men’s talk,’ when there’s other worlds out there … Other worlds that do not know our shackles, so we must, in actuality, be so small within them.”
Perhaps the most impactful character in Angstman’s novel, apart from Ruth herself, is Askook- a member of the Pequot tribe who teaches Ruth about his culture and opens her eyes to the persecution that his people are facing from the European settlers. Ruth finds a kinship in Askook- as someone who knows what it feels like to be ostracized for simply being different- and develops a sympathy for the Indigenous people of America and does everything she can to protect her friend from the struggles he faces because of his heritage.
This deep loyalty Ruth has for those she cares about, coupled with her resilience and her forward thinking regarding social attitudes towards race and gender, makes her a likable and relatable modern heroine. What’s more is that Ruth consistently displays her desire to learn and her natural intelligence which she refuses to limit- even though Puritan, colonial New England enforced the belief that women should not strive for more than their “natural” roles as wives and mothers- and continues to foster her love of knowledge throughout the novel.
She would not let herself be confined to this figure of domesticity and obedience that her society set forth as the standard for women, and she set out to do what too many women before and after those of her time were often afraid to do- create a new identity and life for themselves.
“Who was Ruth? What defined this being? A new identity swept through her bones with rigor, and she felt them calcify, as if her whole self – whatever it was – had turned bone-thick and could push back against the shrinking walls.”
Ruth Miner is a product of both her time, and ahead of her time. Angstman does an excellent job of mixing the historical and the modern, assigning 21st century feminist characteristics to her main character, while presenting Ruth his historically appropriate situations to exhibit these traits in. Ruth does not feel like a character out of time, but a character with an enlightened view of her time.
She is aware that people of her town believe that all women have some inherent evil in them, following in the belief that it was womankind who are to blame for the fall of humanity in God’s eyes because it was Eve that the serpent tempted in the opening story of the book of Genesis- and in Ruth’s time, the word of God was the only law that mattered. As the unenlightened characters of Angstman’s novels believe: “What is a woman’s purpose, …but to encourage the wicked ways of another woman against all of the man’s laws and conventions?”
Yet Ruth does defy those conventions, and in the end, it is she who finds happiness and is able to escape the confining attitudes of her people on the sea. She thrives in a male profession on the sea and proves the capability and strength that a woman can exhibit when she sets her mind to reclaiming her own existence outside the harmful persecutions and attitudes of her village.
Despite the attention Angstman pays to the social and cultural issues she addresses, the novel is not as heavy or dense as other novels of historical fiction. Her story is fast paced and exciting in its uncertainty of what challenge Ruth will face next. As soon as our heroine and her companions manage to resolve one issue or escape from one difficult situation, they immediately find themselves involved in another adventure. From escaping burning houses, to witch trials to defending herself against those who deem her weak or easily controlled simply because of her gender, Ruth Miner proves herself to be a courageous and admirable character in the face of danger and persecution, all while maintaining her beliefs and never once compromising her sense of right and wrong- even when the hegemonic believes her evil or crazy simply because she believes in justice and fairness.
Ruth Miner is a heroine for a new age of modern womanhood and despite the historical setting, the issues she faces continue to be relevant to today’s society. The challenges that Ruth faces in regard to obtaining her rights and her education are still felt by women all around the world today, and regardless of the extreme progress that has been made since the women of Ruth’s time lived, there are still some obstacles that need to be overcome. Her activism towards better social change is admirable, and it is an attitude such as hers that if adopted by all members of society could lead to a better future for peoples of a minority or an underrepresented sector of humanity. One in which the winter of the old patriarchy can be led into a spring of equality between all groups and in which no one must face judgement or persecution for who they are.
“If there are other worlds out there, I wonder if they have a spring. I wonder if somewhere there is endless winter and somewhere an endless spring, and how do we cross over? How does one understand spring when he’s known only winter?”
Angstman’s blend of the historical and the modern is a new and refreshing take on the historical fiction genre, and the story other heroine Ruth Miner is a captivating and engaging one that teaches so many lessons about how society can continue to grow. She makes it clear how important it is to look to the past to inform how we move forward and shape the future.
This novel displays Angstman’s great capability as an historical fiction writer, and if her debut is this compelling and engaging, then her next novel is sure to be even better.