Set during an oft-forgotten time period in American history, Leah Angstman’s book Out Front the Following Sea takes readers on a journey into the wilderness of pre-Revolutionary War America. Witch hunts establish America’s misogynistic foundation, and the early colonials’ treatment of Indigenous tribes begins forming America’s racist past and a system of oppression that continues into modern times despite a cloak of civilization and equality. The novel not only evokes time and place, but also a female experience too frequently forgotten and not discussed. The novel’s protagonist, Ruth Miner, becomes a different kind of heroine, one who boldly affirms readers’ misgivings about America’s complex history.
Headstrong and intelligent, Ruth Miner is a resilient, rebellious woman who defies the stereotypes and expectations of her society. From the novel’s beginning, readers see that Ruth is ostracized and that those around her believe she is a witch, as the bitter Mrs. Pieterszoon denies Ruth a few parsnips: “Ye shrivel them parsnips like ye shriveled the rest of the crop, and ye’ll be eating a coring iron.” The harassment continues as Ruth moves from cart to cart, and the townspeople’s brutality is on full display as they accuse Ruth of being a thief and a liar, accusations that no one bothers to dispute. However, Ruth defends herself, and she quickly establishes for readers that she is a woman with her own mind and resolve who will not stoop to the townspeople’s level in order to conform.
Nonetheless, readers can’t forget that grounding the novel is an infrequently discussed war that ultimately helped form America: King William’s War, during which New France battled New England. The conflict splits not only the land the early colonists strategically stole from their rightful Indigenous tribes, it also divides the early settlers, particularly those like Owen, who proves to be one of Ruth’s few allies. He is half-French and empathetic to the Pequot people.
The Pequot lived in the Thames valley in what is now Connecticut. They subsisted by hunting, fishing, and cultivating corn. Historically, the Pequot spoke a dialect of Mohegan-Pequot language. Before the Pequot gained control of much of Connecticut during the 17th century, the Pequot and the Mohegan people were one tribe. Because of his association with them, Owen is as much an outcast as is Ruth, and his struggle with his identity transforms the novel from a historical conflict to a personal one. His role in Ruth’s life, especially as the father of their child, adds yet another complex layer to Ruth’s heroinic identity as she faces life as a single mother in a society where negative attitudes towards fatherless children and husbandless women reigned supreme. Owen also contrasts other male characters in the novel. His respect for and affections toward Ruth are clearly evident, while other male characters persistently degrade Ruth based on careless rumors.
Ruth is a fresh antithesis to typical female characters in precolonial and colonial-focused literature. Despite her relationship with Owen, Ruth’s exertion of her independence is what most sets her apart from characters like Sarah Cooper in Howard Fast’s April Morning. Ruth is bold, and she asserts her identity, especially in the face of misogyny. She quickly defends herself, most memorably during her passage from Shrewsbury to Stonington, during which the captain describes her as a “meager, unkempt, undomesticated girl of no kinship or class, no education.” Ruth tells the captain, “I’m not a piece of cargo waiting for a customs tax. You don’t get to make my choice or shove me around from shipload to shipload like a crate of cornmeal.” She establishes herself as something more than a commodity, more than an object, and her defiance transcends the subservience and silence expected of women during the time period.
Ultimately, Out Front the Following Sea becomes a unique preserver of history. Despite being fiction, the novel carries the story of the strong, unnamed women who helped shape America’s early history. It is through characters like Ruth Miner and the research that authors like Leah Angstman invest in their projects that these once voiceless stories come to life. While the novel preserves the lesser-known history of brave female fortitude, it also — thanks to Angstman’s meticulous research — acts as a safeguard for the Pequot language, which went extinct in 1908 after the last native speaker’s death. Thus, Out Front the Following Sea is a novel of the underdog, the overlooked, and the oppressed. Instead of buying into the glorified, mainstream images and tropes of the early settlers and early American history, this authentic, carefully researched novel uplifts heroes and heroines of a different ilk. In rich prose reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s best works, Angstman shares with readers a history they won’t find in average history textbooks, and she offers the world a new, much-needed heroine of a different sort.
Out Front the Following Sea
By Leah Angstman
Regal House Publishing
Published January 11, 2022