In the early 20th century, Congress considered a plan to import hippopotamuses to the US in order to address a national meat shortage. These hippos would live in the swamps of Louisiana, where, presumably, ranchers would “farm” them. Thankfully, this never happened. Thankfully, also, fiction exists, because Sarah Gailey’s novella River of Teeth, which posits an alternate history where hippos did indeed come to the southern United States, is utterly delightful.
Set in the late 19th century (Gailey moved the hippo experiment back by about 40 years), River of Teeth is the story of a band of outcasts, criminals, and hippo wrangles who set out in an attempt to clear the Louisiana bayou of the feral hippos who have run rampant in the area.
I loved everything about the setting of this book. Gailey’s world-building is lush and complex. Though short (the audiobook is only four hours), Gailey paints a full picture of hippo rancher culture in Louisiana in the 1890s. It’s fully developed and rife with detail. There’s elements of the classic western—outlaws, fights in seedy bars, US marshals hunting down criminals, lots of gambling. Plus hippos. Yes, it’s absurd and fun and ridiculous, but it’s also authentic. It wasn’t just western + hippos, but something fully realized, a reimagined history that felt real enough to be plausible.
Gailey excels at creating atmosphere. Her descriptions are stellar: the bayou, the Louisiana heat, the Harriet (a massive manmade lake on the Mississippi overrun with feral hippos), the floating luxury casinos and pleasure boats, the hippos themselves. I sank immediately into this world and didn’t want to come out.
I also enjoyed all of the characters. They all felt real, and I appreciated their complexity Each character had their own reason for setting out on this dangerous mission, and those reasons were not always especially moral. Their backstories and motivations were all interesting. It was so refreshing to read an alternate history adventure story like this populated by queer people and women. It was also refreshing that none of those queer people or women were perfect, but messy, flawed, sometimes reprehensible, sometimes praiseworthy—as humans are.
One of the main characters is nonbinary, and uses they/them pronouns. I absolutely loved how Gailey handled this. It was not a thing. All of the characters in the book, friend and enemy alike, use the correct pronouns; clearly, it this alternate history, it’s common practice. Who cares if this is historically accurate? It’s a book about American hippos! If Gailey can imagine hippos into 1890s America, she can also imagine common usage of they/them pronouns. It was so affirming to read and it was such a relief that Hero’s gender identity had nothing to do with the plot.
My only complaint is that the book wasn’t long enough. The first few chapters established the setting and characters, but then things started happening fast, and I felt like I didn’t have enough time to get to know the characters as much as I wanted to. There’s a sequel, which I can’t wait to read, but I think Gailey sold herself short. She had everything she needed for a longer, more satisfying novel, one that would have done her characters justice. I wish I had read that book, but, as it stands, River of Teeth is still an utterly delightful and imaginative adventure story, filled with fantastic queer characters and plenty of action. I highly recommend the audiobook.