Ruth Miner, a young woman living in a brutal 17th-century New England, can’t seem to catch a break. She flees her hometown after allegations of witchcraft and becomes a stowaway on a ship with her childhood friend Owen Townsend as the first mate, but danger abounds amidst the other lecherous crew members. And this is one of her safer adventures in Leah Angstman’s debut novel, Out Front the Following Sea. When Ruth disembarks in a new town and Owen can’t—or won’t—stay with her, she buys land, befriends a Pequot Indian, and learns to speak French—all punishable offenses for women in 1689 New England. When Owen returns for a visit and tells her he won’t return again for at least another year, Ruth, for her own safety and wellbeing, accepts a marriage proposal from another man—which becomes the catalyst for the rest of the dangerous situations she encounters throughout the novel.
At the beginning of the story, when the reverend won’t help Ruth’s dying grandmother, she shows her demanding, angry, and stubborn side by screaming curses up and down the street: “You want to burn me? Come and get me! I’ll curse you as the witch you’ve made me. All of you! In your tight houses, curse you. Curse your children and their children. Curse your Bibles and your cattle and your goats and your fields!” But it’s not difficult to develop empathy for her when she recalls the abuse she has already experienced and continues to face on nearly every page of the book. Ruth might be rude and snappy, but she’s also brave, resilient, and intelligent with an insatiable desire to learn, even when she knows it’s forbidden. She devours books that Owen brings to her, even—and especially—the books in French. Her independence and craving for learning are endearing.
Angstman, an historian, does not skimp on the details to help the reader experience 17th century New England as if we are there. She uses language and terminology of the day in both dialogue and descriptions, placing us firmly in each scene. Readers unfamiliar with the time period may need a few pages to get used to the rhythm of the language and the unfamiliar words, such as the dialogue of the first page: “Ga weg! Ye’ll starve for what I care of it. Ye shrivel them parsnips like ye shriveled the rest of the crop, and ye’ll be eating a coring iron.” Likewise, the descriptions of Owen’s ship, Primrose, are particularly detailed: “Primrose’s wide, boxlike hull allowed her a narrow weatherdeck, which proved convenient for avoiding higher deck-surface-area taxes, yet her full-sized holds could still be packed with hundreds of tons of goods. Her high, proud bow was matched by an elegant aftcastle at the stern.” The dialect and historically-accurate descriptions remain consistent throughout the novel and deftly create an immersive experience into the high-stakes world in which Ruth lives.
The fast-paced plot engages the imagination from start to finish. Ruth never seems to get rest between her health- and-life-risking adventures. People first mistake her for a damsel in distress and want to take advantage of her. But upon hearing her speak intelligently and advocate for herself, they want to punish her, which they do by refusing to help her, destroying her books and other property, attacking and physically crippling the people she loves, and attempting to rape and assault her. There are moments of kindness, though, from people who are, like Ruth, deemed outsiders to the mainstream culture of white Englishman. The other outsiders—two townswomen, Frenchman Owen, a Pequot Indian, and a highwayman— each play a role in Ruth’s survival. They also illustrate the great divide between the power of white Englishmen and everyone else in the country at that time. It’s the Englishmen’s presumed power and the actions they take because of it that provide the greatest risk to Ruth and her friends.
Ruth’s adventures, setbacks, and accomplishments make her a character to root for. Readers with a love of historical fiction, action-adventure plots, and/or strong women protagonists will love this fast-paced, action-packed, historically-accurate novel.
Out Front the Following Sea
By Leah Angstman
Regal House Publishing
Published January 11, 2022
writer. competitive swimmer. trail adventurer. Tweets @dr_greenawalt www.annegreenawalt.com