I received this book from The Next Best Book Club in exchange for an honest review.
Historian and author Leah Angstman’s newest book, Shoot the Horses First follows a variety of character from different historical times, showing their struggles and the time they live with care and realism. From a young boy being inspected on the Orphan Train, a wife caring for her husband suffering with PTSD from the Civil War, the yellow fever, cowboys, a woman botanist looking for the same respect as her male colleagues, a disabled woman hidden away by her wealthy family, and many more stories that tell these characters truths and bring reader’s into their lives.
Do I think it’s funny that the first book I reviewed in 2022 was by Leah Angstman and that I’m following that trend in 2023? Yes. It’s even better to be continuing the pattern and enjoying both books immensely!
I’m not very familiar with American history, so there were times some of the stories confused me based solely on my own lack of knowledge, but I still learned a lot from Angstman’s short story collection. You can tell she’s passionate about history and the stories she’s telling. I appreciated the context she gave for each of the stories at the end of the book. Angstman is also willing to write the cold, hard truths about what life was like for these people. She doesn’t romanticize things, doesn’t turn people into caricatures or make life for these characters look more beautiful than it was. It’s real, and sometimes it hurts, but it’s necessary to know the truth. It’s a truly remarkable collection that any history lover would love to have on their shelves!
I was amazed that Angstman had not one but two stories which featured disabled characters and handled them both with great respect. It’s rare to read about disabled characters in fiction, it’s even rarer for these stories to be told with respect and care and Angstman handles both these stories wonderfully. It filled my heart to see her do this and I hope we see more historical fiction (and fiction in general, honestly) write disabled characters with the same respect, care, and love that Angstman has done.
You can read my thoughts on each of the stories below:
Corner to Corner, End to End – 3 stars: I liked this one, it had a bit of a shock factor at the end that I wasn’t expecting that just goes to show my own internal bias’. I love a story that makes me think and reconsider things!
The Orphan Train – 4 stars: Sad, but hopeful. I don’t know much about the Orphan Trains, but they sound horrible and I feel for those poor children that were on them and what they were subjected to.
Every Time It Snows – 3.5 stars: This one has a great ending! It lost me for a bit at the beginning, and I felt so bad for the wife that it took me a bit to pay more attention to what her PTSD husband was saying but a surprising story nonetheless!
Casting Grand Titans – 4 stars: One of the longer ones in this collection. I got lost sometimes in the botany and science jargon, but overall really loved the characters. It was such a concise and tragic story, with a bit of hope in the ending. Each of the characters were so flesh-out and I was very involved with what was happening in the story.
One Night, When the Breath of August Blew Hotter – 4 stars: A short one, but with some great dark humour. This one had me laughing.
In Name Only – 5 stars: One of my favourites! This story had a True Grit vibe and I loved Molly and Nathanial, I want a movie series with these two because it would be fun!
Yellow Flowers – 4 stars: A short, tragic story made all the more tragic by the characters involved.
A Lifetime of Fishes – 3.5 stars: One of our two disability stories, privileged Grace becomes amputated after a shipwreck that kills her father and brother and is taken in by a group of Wampanoag people. This story was hard at times with Grace’s privilege and bias to the Indigenous people, but Angstman handles the tough subject matter well while respecting the Indigenous community.
In the Blood – 4 stars: This one was surprisingly dark and funny and literally had me squirming uncomfortably as I was reading. I shouldn’t have been as disgusted or surprised by old timey blood transfusions, but here we are!
New Mexico Farmhouse, Hard to Find after All Those Years – 2 stars: Short and a little confusing. I think I was able to piece together what this story was about, but I think it may have been stronger as a longer piece.
Small Sacrifices – 3 stars: This was an odd little story. Very very gross, and a bit tragic in the end. I didn’t really know what to make of it, not my favourite but the descriptions were very good!
The Desert Jewel – 4 stars: More cowboys! This was a very detailed story and for the most part I really enjoyed it, but did have a bit of trouble with the ending. I think my lack of history showed with that, but all in all a very heartfelt piece.
A Cleaning to the Stovepipe – 4 stars: We’re in France! I really enjoyed the narrator, Isabelle, and absolutely loathed Perceval, which is how Angstman intended and boy did she do a good job of it!
The Lights Ages; or, Holes in the Heart – 5 stars: My absolute favourite of the collection. This is the second story with a disabled character, Julie, who was born with a hole in her heart and a stroke as an infant which left half of her body paralyzed and is hidden away by her privileged family until one day a young university student throws a baseball into her room and hears her singing. I felt so much pain for the way Julie was treated but loved how Angstman showed her as a real, human-being with thoughts and dreams and love. She wasn’t “inspiring,” she wasn’t a “trooper,” she was Julie, disabled, and a person deserving of respect. A beautiful story!
Every Step Counts – 3 stars: This story feels almost sinister when reading. It follows a woman who is obsessive compulsive and going about her rituals. I think it was a very unique way of showing OCD, but wish it didn’t feel so sinister.
Music Knows No Color – 4 stars: A young Black man, the grandson of Frederick Douglas, plays his violin at the World’s Fair on Colored American Day. I’ll confess that I didn’t know about Joseph Douglas until this story, and I’ll definitely have to do some research on him because he sounds like a very interesting man!
Publication: February 28th 2023
Publisher: Kernpunkt Press
Pages: 238 pages (Paperback)
Source: TNBBC (Thanks Lori!)
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Short Stories
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤⛤
Through a historian’s lens and folkloric storytelling, the pieces in SHOOT THE HORSES FIRST revel in the nuances, brutality, mythology, and tiny victories of our historical past. A launderer takes us inside the linens of the richest families in early Baltimore. A child on the Orphan Train has his teeth inspected like a horse. Civil War soldiers experience PTSD. While one woman lands on an island of the Wampanoag tribe, a woman 200 years later finds Apache in a harsh frontier. Children survive yellow fever, the desert heat, and mistaken identities; men survive severed fingers, untested medicines, and wives with obsessive compulsive disorders. Frederick Douglass’ grandson plays violin at the World’s Fair on Colored American Day, a woman with disabilities is kept hidden away like she doesn’t exist, and a botanist is denied her place in a science journal because she is female. Themes of place, war, mental illness, identity, disability, feminism, and unyielding optimism throughout harrowing desperation resurface in this collection of stories that takes us back to time immemorial, yet feels so close, and all too familiar.