Shoot the Horses First
by Leah Angstman
Kernpunkt Press, 2023
Reviewed by Catherine Hayes
What makes a person’s story worth telling? Leah Angstman brings this question to the forefront of her debut short story collection Shoot the Horses First, as she transports her reader to the past through a patchwork of moments in American history and combats discriminatory, prejudiced beliefs that not only speak to history but also to the present day.
They are moments that history may have deemed unworthy and forgettable, but Angstman’s collection of stories shows that real life cannot be categorized so plainly. Her imaginative prose and compelling characters breathe life into the mundane activities of daily life and emphasizes that while some stories may not have been at the forefront of history for their greatness or memorability, it does not mean they were any less significant. Each character is dynamic and complex, reflecting the emotions and thoughtfulness of those who walk in the footsteps of today’s world but also reminiscent of basic human emotions and actions, making them characters that can be found at any point in time, creating an engaging and realistic reading experience while remaining faithful to the traditional historical fiction narrative.
In the story “Casting Grand Titans”, the heroine Agatha finds herself facing judgement, persecution, and rejection because of her interest in science and her desire to be published in a scientific journal. She is consistently met with the criticisms of her peers and is continuously cast off by her male colleagues who refuse to meet her requests for the most basic of necessities and supplies she needs while her male colleagues are granted the same things without a second thought. Even though she has met the qualifications to be a part of their world in theory, her gender prevents her from ever being fully accepted by the men of her field—an attitude that extends to all the women of the college attempting to pursue a career in the field of STEM.
“Instructions in Gardening for Ladies is not an acceptable textbook for the girls. You promised me [Agatha] a lab if I taught women’s sewing, and for gracious’ sake, I’m teaching sewing. In the dark. With degrees in chemistry and botany.”
Angstman provides her readers with a glimpse into the struggles faced by those of historically marginalized groups and provides a raw and honest view of the joyous victories and the brutal losses that members of the non-hegemonic class of society would face in American history. Her investigation into the prejudices of history does not rest solely with the injustices faced by women. Her vision extends to encompass a plethora of situations: racism and racial conflict; ableism; the harm that arose from historically inaccurate scientific information; sexism directed towards men as well as women for not conforming to historical archaic gender roles.
A young boy is scorned for doing “woman’s work” by sewing and cleaning; a medical student helps a girl with partial paralysis feel validated by helping her to record her compositions on a phonograph; Frederick Douglass’s grandson dreams of being the first Black violinist who undertakes a transcontinental tour; and many more.
In the story “Every Time it Snows”, a solider has returned home from the Civil War to his wife and son, but as a severely changed man. He has PTSD and his memories of all the horrors he witnessed in battle are intermingled with what he sees happening around him in the present. His wife and son find themselves struggling to adjust to their changed loved one, and while they recognize it is their responsibility to care for him, there are times they cannot abandon their new responsibility no matter how difficult or exhausting it might be.
“Sometimes there were rare moments of lucidity, and Robert almost hated those more, for when they dispersed, they left his mother in a state of depression that was unbearable. Still, she refused to quit the man, calling on that cold word that hung around the house like a noose: duty.”
These are but a few of the neglected characters of America’s unknowingly rich and vibrant history that Angstman has recovered with her fictional retellings. Each of the sixteen stories is full of poignant moments of struggle and battle, both internal and external, as each of the characters craves that which each of them has been denied: the freedom to create their own paths in life and escape from the duties or expectations that accompany them throughout their situations.
Despite the cruel realities and injustices that existed for this diverse population in the past, which Angstman addresses, there is still hope and levity in these seemingly dark situations. There is the power of choice and the fondness of memories, an ability to have some say in the course of their lives despite outward forces attempting to suppress and limit their choices. Stories that despite their historical settings ring true for many different situations and people in the modern world.
Yet these disparate narratives are all connected by threads of triumph and hope. Whether the victory be small or great, Angstman emphasizes that the small triumphs, which might seem insignificant to one individual but might mean the world to another, are just as important and meaningful as the larger ones.
Angstman’s characters all experience a personal growth of some kind, breaking down the barriers of their personal ignorance or misunderstandings about the world in which they reside and realizing that perhaps life is more diverse and complex than one might initially believe.
In the short story, “A Lifetime of Fishes”, a young woman named Grace finds herself stranded and permanently injured on the shore of a river, and finds herself rescued and nursed by a Native American tribe. Initially, Grace finds herself hesitant to ingratiate herself in the tribe despite their kindness and her own inability to leave even if she desired as she continues to harbor the idea that the people are “other” from her and that she does not belong. As she spends more time with the tribe and learns that her own society is not so flawless as she once assumed, she realizes that her own world need not be so divided between two cultures—that she has the power to educate herself against the prejudices she was taught and make a new identity for herself in the space between worlds.
“Return,” Ishkodhonck whispered, softly rowing in the darkness, halfway between Canopache and Lewis Bay. “I find you wherever your boat breaks.”
“I know that you will.
“It is right here,” she said, nodding to the Sound, “between both worlds.
Varying in length, each story shines and can stand on its own as a singular narrative. Whether the story be 2 pages or 50 pages long, each one is a fully developed, riveting story. When put together, the entire collection shines and makes the reading experience a full and enjoyable one.
Her skills in historical research and accurate writing shine in this collection, and Leah Angstman has once again shown her hand as a master storyteller. She excels at recovering voices which have previously been lost to time and following in the literary footsteps of other great female historical fiction writers, she gives life to the lost characters of American history and shows her readers that there is always more than one side to every story.