RHC 2019: American Hippo by Sarah Gailey

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read an alternate history novel.

This is my third round of the Book Riot Read Harder challenge, and I recommend it to everyone I know. Reading more widely and posting here about it has done a lot to improve my reading (comprehension, retention, and enjoyment), which of course is nothing but a positive for my writing as well.

I’ve been reading more, generally, outside of my challenge books, and it’s been wonderful to finally get a grasp on the book world again. This process has also involved setting some limits on my phone. I’m happier and I get more done when I’m not constantly and  mindlessly scrolling, and I’m a better reader for it. I haven’t gone to extremes like deleting all social media from my phone, but being just a teensy bit more aware of how often I’m staring at a little beeping buzzing LCD screen has helped me reclaim more reading time than you’d think a parent with a full time job could scrounge up.

But even apart from (sort of) untethering myself from my phone, I believe that doing these challenges has helped me become more curious and willing to jump into material I may not know anything about or have any sort of experience with. It’s brought a lot of the pleasure of words back into my life, and so yes, I’m going to keep doing this, and yes, I’m going to keep blogging for my mother about it.

Which brings me to my first Read Harder book this year, which is wall-to-wall feral hippos, pregnant Latina assassins, and nonbinary explosive experts. Weeeee!

American Hippo is a really fun, rambunctious read with a delicious premise. In the early twentieth century, Congress considered a plan to import hippos both for meat and to control the invasive water hyacinth in Louisiana. Seriously, this part is real.

American Hippo collects two sequential novellas (River of Teeth and A Taste of Marrow) and two short stories set in a world that kicks that fascinating legislative curiosity back several decades and turns it into a Wild West style cowboy setup. I’m pretty sure I catch whiffs of Mel Gibson’s 1994 Maverick (a movie I really liked, which came out before we all knew some things about its star) in its riverboat casino atmosphere (except in this case the river is teeming with bloodthirsty hippos). I was also happy to recognize what I think was a call back to Lonesome Dove when a character met a sudden, gruesome end during a river crossing.

Instead of cowboys, though, here we have “hoppers,” hippo ranchers and riders waddling around a giddily lawless American South. The word “hopper” is both pretty cool slang and effortlessly gender neutral. Gailey’s alternate world itself is effortlessly gender neutral, which is is incredibly fun to read. There’s a lot of violence and social unrest in here, but very little of it is rooted in bigotry. It’s refreshing.

The book follows the adventures of a revenge-seeking hopper and former rancher named Houndstooth, who has been hired to rid the swamps of feral hippos. It seems like a legitimate assignment from the federal government (don’t call it a caper), but of course more sinister machinations are afoot. Houndstooth assembles his dream team of scoundrels, each mounted on a fabulously characterized hippo. Houndstooth himself is openly bi, as is my favorite of the crew, Regina Archambault, French-speaking New Orleanian con artist.  We also have Adelia Reyes, a deadly assassin who is also tremendously pregnant. Then there’s Houndstooth’s eventual love interest Hero, a demolition and poison expert whose retirement has been less than satisfying and who’s ready to return to the action.

No one – not once – so much as blinks about Hero’s pronouns. I’m always grateful to encounter a nonbinary fictional character written with so much gusto as Hero. Their gender identity isn’t a plot point, and it’s never remarked on. I know that serving the needs of cishet people like me isn’t necessarily the point of writing a character like Hero, but as a cishet person, I do appreciate being able to practice they/theirs without having to drag along an actual human into my struggle to move past outdated grammar rules I was taught in first grade. I hope that the next time I meet someone with pronouns other than he/she, I’m able to correctly use the right words as easily as everyone in this book.

A major bonus in a fairly gritty fantasy – not a single sexual assault or threat thereof!

My one complaint isn’t a real complaint, but more of a personal preference. Both novellas are lean, fast-moving machines. They both have action-heavy plots, and while the jolt of adrenaline from that kind of pacing is awfully fun, I could have stood for things to slow down long enough for me to really sink my teeth into the world building.

The two short stories at the end frankly feel like material either written during the exploratory phase of the world’s creation or stuff that was cut from the final draft in order to maintain that breakneck pace . It makes sense that they weren’t included in either novella, though they were both very entertaining. However, the hippo dentistry story in particular (“Worth Her Weight in Gold”) made me sort of wish that the novellas had been able to slow down and expand. That story and the included fictitious timeline raised so many tantalizing questions about the world itself that I could have stood to have spent considerably more time in the Harriet (the name of the giant hippo-infested swamp the Mississippi River has been dammed to create – have I mentioned how much fun this ludicrous concept is?).

Overall, a fantastic premise and a lot of fun to read. I just wanted to stay longer, which is definitely a better problem for a book than the reverse.

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