Before I read River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey, I believed I knew the following facts about hippos:
There is a hippo named Fiona, who lives in a zoo somewhere, that people like a lot.
Hippos eat a lot and poop a lot. In fact, they are champion poopers and thus need quite a bit of personal space.
Hippos can’t jump.
Hippos can kill people if you bother them. If you are farming reeds and pomegranates for the pharaoh, they might kill you even if you don’t bother them, because they’re upset that you’re not sharing or something. (I learned this from a video game.)
There is a game called Hungry Hungry Hippos. Perhaps you have played it.
Pretending you are playing Hungry Hungry Hippos is one way to complete a chore commonly known as “vacuuming.”
The idea for River of Teeth comes from a little-known but verifiable fact: At one time, the United States needed meat and considered hippo ranching in Louisiana. Yes, raising those dangerous, enormous beasts to grace our plates. Imagine it: a hippopotamus porterhouse with all the sides. Some of the largest beef porterhouses are 40 ounces, or 1.134 kilograms for the metric folks. Now, all things won’t be equal, but if an average steer weighs about 750 pounds (340 kg), and an average male hippo weighs about 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg), your server would be bringing you a porterhouse coming in just under 11 pounds, or about 5 kilograms. So of course this incredible excess might have seemed like an excellent enterprise to carnivorous folk.
In the end, the hippo did not enter the pantheon of sounds we make during a rousing performance of “Old MacDonald.”
But River of Teeth imagines they did—and that some hippos escaped their fate to infest part of the lower Mississippi, and went feral between the boundary of an upstream dam and a downstream gate. Our story begins when a group of hoppers—think cowhand, perhaps a term for anyone who can ride a domesticated hippo—is tasked by leader Winslow Houndstooth, who’s been contracted by the federal government, to get the feral hippos past the confining gate and out into the Gulf.
And this (very diverse) group of hoppers is wild. They’ve got skills ranging from thievery to explosives to murder. There is absolutely no question about the grayness of these morally gray characters, and nearly all whom they meet, as they lie, cheat, con, and otherwise go about the business of a feral hippo drive. (There will be violence, and it will be explicit.) It’s refreshing to encounter intriguing characters who are more intense and complicated than lovable rogues with hearts of gold, but who act in ways consistent and logical.
Another delightful aspect of River of Teeth is its specific way of incorporating history. There’s a sense of the stretch pre- and post-Civil War when this could have happened, and enough details for the reader to fill in the worldbuilding without overexplaining in this novella. Of course there would be steamboats hosting gamblers in hippo-infested waters; of course your local watering hole would need an actual watering hole for hippo storage instead of a hitching post.
Finally, this fast-paced read stands alone, but leads into a related novella and short stories—and no spoilers, but if you’re the sort of reader who, like me, ever enjoyed letting Godzilla loose in SimCity and is entertained by the speculative destruction in movies like Volcano (1997) or San Andreas (2015), there is satisfying chaos in store.
Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo gathers all of their stories (two novellas and two short stories) about an alternate version of the American West where hippo ranches line rivers and feral hippos roam the Mississippi River.
These stories are quirky, violent capers with a dangerous cast of characters—and that is just talking about the hippos!
The stories are based around the real proposition made in 1910 to import hippopotamuses from Africa to the Gulf Coast of the United States and raise them as a source of meat. While in reality, the scheme never came to fruition, Gailey moved the beginnings of the scheme back to 1857 and set their stories in the late 1800s. In this alternate history, the United States government dammed up a section of the Mississippi River in Louisiana to create more land for hippo ranching. Eventually, this section of the river, known as the “Harriet,” transformed itself from orderly hippo ranches to dangerous real estate filled with feral hippos and unsavory people.
It is in this world that Gailey’s work takes place. The first novella, River of Teeth, introduces Winslow Remington Houndstooth (with hippo Ruby). He is a former hippo rancher-turned-thief, who has accepted a commission from the United States government to rid the Harriet of the feral hippos. He gathers together demolitions expert Hero Shackleby (with hippo Abigail), con artist Regina “Archie” Archambault (with hippo Rosa), and mercenary Adelia Reyes (with hippos Zahra and Stasia). On the surface, this seems like an odd combination of people to gather to rid an area of feral hippos. However, ridding the Harriet of feral hippos is not Houndstooth’s only objective; rather, he plans to use the commission to strike a blow at corrupt businessman Travers. Travers runs a series of riverboats and he rules those with absolute authority: If you are caught cheating, you will be immediately thrown to the feral hippos in the river. We also find out that Travers had Houndstooth’s hippo ranch burned down, leaving him with nothing but debt and one baby hippo.
River of Teeth is a fast-paced, fun, and gory heist story with a twist of revenge.
There is a fair amount of violence and not just from encounters with feral hippos. Houndstooth and company are all willing to do whatever they have to do to protect themselves. It is fascinating to see their relationships grow through the story. While Hero, Archie, and Adelia originally agree to join Houndstooth’s crew for mostly monetary reasons, their focus changes throughout the story and that change is one of the most satisfying aspects of Gailey’s work. The ending of River of Teeth wraps up enough to feel finished, but also leaves the door open for the next installment.
Taste of Marrow, the second novella of the collection, deals with the aftermath of the events in River of Teeth and has a much more somber feel. The group has been separated. Adelia and Hero are dealing with the aftermath of Hero’s injuries, the birth of Adelia’s daughter, and the bounty on Adelia’s head. Houndstooth is desperately trying to find Hero, while Archie is trying to keep Houndstooth alive and preferably clear-headed. This story shows a different view of the characters. While they were focused on money and revenge in the first story, now they are focused on reuniting with each other and eliminating the obstacles that prevent that reunion. It’s a messy, difficult journey that shows the challenges they face to continue to grow into a family. It’s hard for a bunch of people who are borderline criminals to have a relaxing retirement, but the ending does hint that this might be possible.
The two short stories included in American Hippo are much more light-hearted than either River of Teeth or Taste of Marrow, and expand on two incidents that are mentioned in the novellas. In “Worth Her Weight in Gold,” Houndstooth’s baby hippo has grown up into his mount Ruby. She is an ornery, vain hippo who would just as soon chomp on you as look at you, but she loves Houndstooth and he loves her. However, when he is on a job, Houndstooth isn’t always as careful about Ruby’s tooth care as he should be. It is a quick read, but it shows just how much Houndstooth loves Ruby and exactly what he will give up for her health and happiness. It also gives us a close-up view of Ruby’s personality, which is a delightful mix of charm and chomping.
“Nine and a Half” tells the story of a job that Houndstooth and Archie pull together when they meet U.S. Marshal Gran Carter. It also answers the ongoing question of how many times Archie has saved Houndstooth—or does it? This story ends with an excellent escape scene, which is a fun glimpse into the more ridiculous side of Archie and Houndstooth.
American Hippo offers an alternate historical world with fast-paced action and complex characters. The hippos are an excellent addition to the story, showing a variety of personalities from calm and placid to high-strung and energetic. They provide a way for their owners to show their humanity because the people are a fascinating mix of characters, none of whom could be classified as actually “good” people. However, they are charismatic and complicated, loving to friends and devoted to their hippos, and they will cheerfully steal the ring from your finger if it will help them. I love the fact that it is based in a real proposition and plays with a might have been. I love the variety of personalities and motivations, but mostly, I love the fact that the hippos get a story where they can be as sweet and brutal as they are in real life.
When she is not wrangling students (and co-workers) for a music non-profit, Karen Bailey can often be found working on completing the Sirens Reading Challenge. She also keeps busy with quilting, crocheting, and paper-crafts.
Hallie Tibbetts works in children’s publishing, editing books for all ages. She has a love of adventure, travel, interesting food, and dinosaurs (preferably all at once). She is one of the founders of Narrate Conferences, the presenting organization behind Sirens, and has served in various roles, including conference chair and programming coordinator.