United States – American Hippo
Guest Post by Tammy Paul
As soon as I read the blurb for American Hippo, I knew I had to read it, and that I wanted to be the one to write the review for it for this year’s Sefer HaOmer.
In their forward, Sarah Gailey tells us of the US Congress’s early 20th-century plan to resolve a meat shortage in America by importing hippos and raising them in Louisiana’s bayous.
“The plan was that the hippos would eat the ruinously invasive water hyacinth; the American people would eat the hippos; everyone would go home happy. Well, except the hippos. They’d go home eaten.” (Sarah Gailey, American Hippo, p.14)
As we know, of course, Congress did not end up following through on the plan, and hippo ranching in the United States never became a thing. But Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo imagines a world where hippo ranching really happened, and it is absolutely glorious.
The human characters are expertly written, achingly relatable, and spellcastingly charming. The hippo characters (and each one has its own unique character, make no mistake) had me wanting my own hippo hop to raise from birth.
Two Novellas and Two Short Stories
American Hippo is comprised of two novellas; River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, and two short stories; Worth Her Weight in Gold and Nine and a Half. The first novella introduces the main characters and shares the story of their operation to clear the Mississippi river of feral hippos. The second follows them during the aftermath of the operation when they were forced to split up and scatter due to unforeseen circumstances. The first short story tells us how Ruby got her gold tusks; the second has Reggie telling us about the nine and a half times she saved Houndstooth’s life, while they’re in the middle of robbing a bank.
Our tale starts in Georgia, where a man named Winslow Remington Houndstooth sits at a scarred wooden table, having just finished negotiating a deal with a federal agent. The first impression we have of our other protagonists is his assessment of them from a set of five photographs selected during their negotiation. “A round-faced woman, her hair set in a crown of braids; an ink-dark, fine-boned rogue; a hatchet-nosed man with a fussy moustache; and a stone-faced woman with a tattoo coiling up her neck” (p16). Even from this short description, we begin to get to know the other characters.
Next, we meet Ruby, Houndstooth’s hippo and here we learn a little of the history of hippo ranching and the Marsh Expansion Project. We also start to get a feel for the close relationship between Houndstooth and Ruby.
We then discover that Houndstooth has a flare for the dramatic and a penchant for knives and bloodshed. This was my first hint of the bloodshed and gore that runs throughout the book. It’s not something that bothered me in the slightest (blood, guts, and gore generally don’t), but it’s something that’s worth mentioning ahead of time when reviewing and recommending a book.
A Diverse Cast of Characters
None of the protagonists are good people, they’re outlaws and they couldn’t be described as heroes by any stretch of the imagination, but neither are they inherently bad people. They care about others as well as themselves, and as the story progresses we see that some grow to care deeply about one another too.
I won’t go into detail about all the characters, but two of them were particularly important to me.
Regina Archambault spoke to me in a way few characters have done in books. She is an unapologetically fat Frenchwoman who charms everyone she wants to. She is fiercely feminist and refuses to change for anyone, and she loves her friends and her hippo deeply.
Hero is the first literary non-binary character I’ve encountered, and it was such a refreshing change to not only see representation of non-binary characters, but to see it so naturally written. Hero’s gender (or lack thereof) was not a critically important plot point, it wasn’t a big deal, and I admit that the first time I read the chapter that introduces them, I didn’t even notice the lack of gendered pronouns. And then I did. And I went back and reread that section. And I squeed. Because just like I appreciated Archie’s representation of fat women on my own behalf, I appreciate Hero’s representation of non-binary characters on behalf of my NB friends.
A Fun, Violent Hippo Story That Exceeds All Expectations
American Hippo did not just live up to my expectations of a book about hippos in the Wild West, it outstripped them completely, and just when I thought I couldn’t possibly love the characters any more than I already did, I was proven wrong over and over again.
I highly recommend American Hippo to anyone who enjoys adventure and isn’t bothered by graphic descriptions of guts and gore (particularly things like severed body parts and people being eaten to death by hippopotami), as well as anyone who loves a good cowboy story.
There are even a couple of romantic subplots which were surprisingly well done considering they were not the main point of the story.
About The Author
Hugo Award Winner and Bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe. Their short fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic For Liars, was published in 2019. Their most recent novel, The Echo Wife, is available now. You can find links to their work at www.sarahgailey.com and on social media at @gaileyfrey.