One of the tasks for Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge (I am just dead set on getting this thing squared away. I may mourn when I finish it) is to read an alternate history novel, which, to be honest, is a genre I’ve been lukewarm about in the past. I grabbed one at the library the last time I was there and knew by about the third page that this wasn’t the book for me, and none of the other suggestions were in, so I began prowling through lists on Goodreads, trying to figure out what I could read for this particular portion of the challenge. When River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey showed up on a list of alternate history novels, I knew I’d found my book. Liberty Hardy flipped out over this on an episode of the All the Books! podcast, and after hearing her read the blurb, I went, “…what???”
In case you’re under the impression that the United States government has ever made sense, we once seriously entertained the idea of importing hippos from Africa in order to breed them for meat in the Louisiana marshes, and if that doesn’t make you go WTF, I’m not sure what would. (The longer story by Jon Mooallem can be read here, and it’s incredible, but make sure you have a bit of time for it.) I’m assuming that when Sarah Gailey learned this bit of history back when it hit the mainstream, after getting over their incredulity that this ever seemed like a good idea to anyone, they went, “Imma write a book about how badly that could have turned out.”
River of Teeth is the story of what might have happened if the idea of hippo importation hadn’t fizzled out. The story opens with Winslow Houndstooth, who is gathering a team of scoundrels to help him with his definitely-not-a-caper-it’s-an-operation to avenge the burning of his hippo ranch and death of his hippos. On paper, they’ll be taking a year to rid Lake Harriet, a dammed off part of the Mississippi River, of feral hippos; the reality involves just a few days, explosives, money for everyone involved, and a horde of feral hippos being set free into the Gulf of Mexico. (Enjoy that beach vacation, everyone!) His band of scoundrels include a French lady pickpocket, a pregnant woman, a retired person (who takes the pronoun ‘they’, which made me happy to read!), and one man with feral hippo experience. They’re up against the most dangerous man in Louisiana, who makes his living off of the feral hippos in Lake Harriet…but the chicanery runs deep in this group. Someone’s been snitching, and the consequences will be deadly.
If you enjoy heist books and movies, you’ll enjoy River of Teeth; reading it felt like a cross between a heist movie and a western, where each character was only separated from the others in degrees of evil. Its over-the-top absurdity (people riding saddled hippos!) made it an utterly delightful read, even as it was clearly one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read. (Not THE weirdest one. I’m saving that one for a future post because it’s just. that. weird.) There’s a lot of violence in this book- several people, including a child, are eaten by hippos, and there are some fairly descriptive scenes involving knives and various body parts human and hippo, so consider yourself warned.
This is a weird and wonderful little book. There’s a follow-up, called Taste of Marrow, and if you’re lucky enough, your library or bookstore will stock American Hippo, a compilation of the two. Sadly, my library doesn’t have Taste of Marrow, and with everything I have to read right now, I probably won’t get around to ordering it via interlibrary loan for a bit, but I’m definitely curious as to how the whole thing ends up.
Who wouldn’t be? I mean, come on. Saddled hippos, people!!!