A Glowing Review of American Hippo
Early 20th century Louisiana: a bill gets put through to U.S. Congress as a proposed remedy to the two main problems that were plaguing the South: a meat shortage, and an abundance of water hyacinth, threatening the ecosystems in and around the Mississippi River. The cure? Hippopotamus ranching.
Sounds insane, right? Importing giant, deadly animals to ranch? That bill was a real thing. And it only failed by one vote. ONE. (More info here)
Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo is a collection of two novellas and two short stories that explores an alternate history where that one (very sane) congressman didn’t exist, the bill passed, and hippo ranches, domesticated hippos, and feral hippos lined the Mississippi. As incredible as that premise is already, it’s Gailey’s writing and casual inclusivity that really makes American Hippo sing. I’ve been recommending American Hippo to everyone I talk to since I read it (thanks to Avi and Sienna and the Hotel Shale Lending Library for giving it to me to devour), and it is on the very top of my 2019 favourites… And I don’t think it’s going to be unseated anytime soon.
American Hippo has all of the elements of a romp through the Wild West of a cowboy novel, but instead of cowboys, we have hoppers, and instead of horses, they ride hippos - notably, our main character, Winslow Houndstooth, rides Ruby - an all black stealthy hippo who has been outfitted with gold teeth for added flair. The rest of the main characters are a group of some of the best criminals in the South and their hippos, gathered by Winslow in order to complete an operation (according to Winslow) or a caper (according to everyone else, to Winslow’s chagrin). At its heart, American Hippo is a lighthearted, violent romp with a found family narrative that kept me surprised and smiling all the way through - everything I ever want in a book.
Cover for sheet music of the "The Hippopotamus Polka", published in the early 1850's (see en:Obaysch) by W. Hall & Son, 259 Broadway, New York. The song was by Louis St. Mars, while the illustration of the young lady dancing the polka with a hippo was by John H. Sherwin from the lithography studios of Napoleon Sarony
It is the characters that really shine throughout American Hippo, and through them, Gailey’s dedication to inclusivity and diversity. However, unlike some books-that-will-remain-unnamed that I’ve read recently where it feels as though the authors are forcing diversity to be the main objective and plot of their works, Gailey manages to have an incredibly inclusive cast of characters in a way that is not intrusive at all. Houndstooth is mentioned as having no preference as to the gender of his partner, Hero is non-binary, introduced with they/them pronouns and never misgendered, Adelia speaks Spanish and is single and pregnant because she wants to be, with no need for a partner, Archie is fat, French, and genderfluid, presenting as both male and female interchangeably.
In reading American Hippo, I saw myself, more clearly and positively than I have in any other book. Gailey presents the reader with Archie, who is fat, sexy, confident, strong and genderfluid - who just happens to be one of the best con artists in Louisiana. She is comfortable with her body and Gailey doesn’t shy away from describing her as fat. In fact, Archie is desirable and flirty, using her body and her charm to distract her targets. After all, no one suspects that the fat girl has nimble fingers.
Gailey builds characters incredibly well throughout both novellas, but the story also moves along at a good pace. There is plenty of action, and Gailey’s worldbuilding is non-intrusive but very effective. They use a few sentences here and there to masterfully build an environment that makes sense, leaving just the right amount to the imagination.
I was thrilled to read American Hippo (if you couldn’t already tell). I finished it and wanted to draw all of the characters - an impulse that I don’t think I’ve had in at least five years, seeing as I tend to leave the drawing up to Brianna. The world and the characters are still incredibly vivid in my mind, months after reading. I would recommend it to everyone - set aside the normal genres that you reach for and give this one a try. I promise you won’t regret it. Gailey also has their debut novel coming out later this summer, Magic for Liars, and I can’t wait for that either. It has been touted as a noir detective meets wizarding school - and if that summary plus Gailey’s casual inclusivity and writing style is not exactly what I look for in a book, I’ll eat a hippo.