Orphan trains. Discovery of new moss species. Anti/love stories across race, ability, and socioeconomic class. Experimental animal blood transfusions. Leah Angstman’s debut short story collection Shoot the Horses First has delightful, and sometimes gruesome, historical fiction gems to entertain and educate about how far we’ve come as a society—and how far we have yet to go.
This collection compiles long and flash fiction, all with precise historical detail woven into each narrative, strong women characters, and plots that keep the stories moving: all traits retained from Angstman’s successful debut novel, Out Front the Following Sea.
Angstman’s world-building and attention to detail bring each story to life, even—or especially—in the shortest pieces of the collection. She covers details like the intricate process of working an Edison home phonograph to record music. She also describes in gritty detail a woman’s newly amputated leg: “It had been severed just above the knee, and the space that once connected to the kneecap was now black, the smell of burned flesh the only thing remaining.” The small details don’t escape her either, for example, when characters are “waxing [their] lips,” the term used when a character touches up her lipstick.
If you thought Ruth Miner from Out Front the Following Sea shined as a protagonist, then you will admire and adore the fierce, feisty, independent women in this collection. Aggie Acton, from “Casting Grand Titans,” is a college professor of botany (or, excuse me, I mean ladies’ gardening) who discovered a new species of moss. Because she is a woman, her contract does not pay her a living wage and prohibits her from drinking, smoking, and other unladylike conduct, whereas the male professors of equal rank get paid well and have no personal restrictions. She’s also prevented from publishing her research. Despite these and other limitations, she continues to work towards her dream of running her own botany museum.
While on a mission to track down and redact her marriage documents and find the family of a kidnapped boy, Molly Sleight tries to make money at a bar to continue her journey in “In Name Only.” When she meets Nat Turner, he hands her his glass and he notices “she might have dolled herself up, but he could see the caked dirt under her cuffs. She needed a bath.” Instead of letting her prostitute herself at the bar, he offers her a job at his ranch. He saves her that night, but when, through her curiosity and persistence, Molly learns his secret at the ranch, she realizes he needs her more than the other way around.
And then, in “A Lifetime of Fishes,” there’s Grace Hewitt, an upperclass white woman who is shipwrecked on the land of the Canopache. At first, she worries she will never be able to marry her fiancé, a wealthy business man who would secure her fate as a kept woman, but as the days pass and she learns more about the Canopache, her worldview changes. Although she still wishes to return home, she learns to be independent, even catching her own fish: “Grace had to make her own spear, and she hadn’t been any good at that, either. She spent hours sharpening her first bone fragment into a point, only to lose the daggered tip into the ocean the minute the water loosened the grip of the sinew bindings. Balance was not her strong suit, and aim proved the hardest task of all. Her looming shadow and careless splashing scared off every fish she encountered before she could get within a spear’s throw.” She, perhaps, becomes more independent than she intended and struggles to determine her true home.
The worldbuilding and character development can only go so far without plot and conflict, but luckily Angstman is skilled in that, too, moving readers through the stories’ actions to peaks of action and releasing them to reflect and connect. For example, in “Small Sacrifices,” two soldiers wish to go home. One of them wants to return to his wife, while the other plots to end his marriage. Through a series of misfortunate events, their wives receive the wrong messages. Angstman lets the true irony of the situation sink in with the closing line, “She’d know the ring wasn’t his.” Additionally, “The Light Ages; or, Holes in the Heart” crafts a mystery around Julie, a young woman whose wealthy family denies her existence to outsiders. A persistent medical student, however, is determined to help Julie share her voice, which has the potential to both open and close the hearts of Julie and her family members.
Angstman uses her attention to detail as an historian combined with her skills as a storyteller to showcase the lives of imagined and fictionalized characters, which not only pleases the reading senses but imparts wisdom of the past, too. She makes subtle connections between critically important topics today—gender equality, sexual orientation, race, class, ability, and more—and connects them with history to show how we have both progressed and stagnated. The descriptions of the stories’ historical contexts in the book’s backmatter are worth reading and add intrigue to her writing and research process.
There’s something for everyone in Shoot the Horses First. Angstman is on a literary roll. Keep an eye on her now and in the future as she crafts stories that transport readers into the past and, in the process, give new insights to modern-day society’s hopes and struggles.
About the Reviewer
Anne Greenawalt is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sport Stories Press. Her writing has been published by Aethlon: Journal of Sport Literature, Autofocus Literary Journal, WOW! Women on Writing, Independent Book Review, Chicago Review of Books, and others. She’s a freelance writer and teaches writing and communication studies at universities in Pennsylvania.