Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Hungry, Hungry Hippos in the Wild, Wild West…

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey.
Book Review by Kerey McKenna.

Alternative history fiction uses “what if?” questions as a jumping off point to launch engaging narratives in a world that could have been. What if the Roman Empire never fell? What if the seat of the British Empire became India? What if the US was governed as a constitutional monarchy?

The “what if?” for Sarah Gailey’s recent novella, River of Teeth, is what if somebody had the bright idea to let wild hippos loose in 19th century Mississippi? What if instead of longhorn cattle, America was getting its red meat and leather from these rotund amphibious behemoths? What if instead of horses, the stock characters of the Western—desperados, federal marshals, bounty hunters, cardsharps—all sat astride mighty hippos swimming through the bayou?

In the world of this novel, the Victorians had a robust breeding program for hippos, so much so that they cultivate specific breeds to differentiate those meant for food and those used for riding. Releasing them into the Mississippi delta just seemed like another grand American adventure, like building the continental railroad. At one time hogs were released into primordial forests to clear the undergrowth and turn them into fields before farmers moved in and culled the conveniently fattened pigs. Now, hippos would be released into the delta to gorge on swamp greenery before being harvested to feed and clothe the growing nation.

Things do not go as planned. The American hippos embrace the call of the wild and, like their African forebearers, become the most dangerous mammal around. With the new Cajun hippos breeding like crazy, the government tries to put the genie back in the bottle by constructing a large hippo-proof barrier to prevent the beasts from moving further up the Mississippi. A great hippo harvest is considered to offset some of the expenses. (So let me get this straight: the president wants to build a wall and get the hippos to pay for it?)

Being highly territorial, the artificial barrier does not improve the feral hippos’ temperaments as their numbers grow and there is only so much swamp to go around.

Now a Mr. Travers, the only robber baron daring enough set up ports of call and riverboat casinos in the heart of hippo territory, rules the delta as his own fiefdom. Anyone defying his rules is thrown into the river and the maws of the horrible hippos.

But hippo handler Winslow Houndstooth has decided to end the chokehold Travers and his feral hippos have on the delta once and for all.

He conceives a daring plan to evict the hippos and gathers an eccentric team to carry it out: his former ranch hand who crawled into the bottom of a bottle, a pleasantly plump French con woman, a demolitions expert of undetermined sex/gender, and the West’s deadliest contract killer, who happens to be 8 months pregnant. Each astride their own hippo companion and trained in the arts of anti-hippo combat, the plan soon goes sideways due to the indifferent forces of nature and the highly personal vendettas of humanity.

This is the weird Western I never knew I wanted.

The book, its world, and its logic are a functional mix of comedy, action, and horror all in a form that on paper shouldn’t work...much like a hippopotamus. Remember that the sweet animal with its twitchy little ears and ponderous appearance…

…can be highly aggressive, has a mouth full of teeth, and can propel itself surprisingly fast on land or water.

And it is a matter of record that in Africa hippos routinely rack up more kills of humans than lions do. However, despite their deadly power, hippos are aesthetically rather silly. And that’s the paradox the novel operates on, deadly and real results from ostensibly silly and bizarre aesthetics. A card game with an accused cheat on a riverboat ends with the malefactor thrown out the window to his death...by hippo. A Victorian lady stops a rampaging bull hippo...with a kung fu meteor hammer (a mace at the end of a swinging rope). Tales of murder, ambition, and revenge to rival any spaghetti Western, but told astride hippos swimming through the swamp instead of horses trotting through Monument Valley. The joke is to play everything completely straight but let the sheer presence of hippopotamus husbandry land the punch line.

Okay, so we have cowboys riding hippos, but is this really “alternate history?” Did the USA ever prepare to make the Mississippi delta a habitat for a horde of hungry hippopotami? Is this just weirdness for weirdness's sake? Such a scenario would be impossible, right? Well, no, this is a weird book in the particulars but the premise has its basis in actual history.

The colonization and settlement of North America did let loose a menagerie of foreign invasive species onto the continent. Pigs were released for food and to help make the land ready for farming, European strains of cattle became so prominent even what we call “buffalo” are more often a European hybrid, and the alien creatures known as “horses” let wild into the continent were a game changer for both colonists and natives. Sometimes animals were even just released on a whim like when a Shakespeare fan deliberately introduced starlings and every other European song bird that the bard mentioned. America is still feeling the ecological repercussions. So it shouldn’t surprise us that we almost added hippos to the mix, and not just escapees from zoos.

In the early 1900’s, the booming US feared that lean times were coming in the form of a meat shortage. To answer the “Meat Question,” the federal government and agricultural concerns considered new and bold solutions. Veterans of the Boer Wars (both British and Boer) advised them that hippos could be domesticated, provided hearty and succulent meat, and thrived in areas traditional grazing animals did not. Studies and hearings were held on the feasibility of stocking American swamps with hippo breeding stock. The matter was given more serious consideration and more publicity than the earlier offer of elephants famously made to President Lincoln by King Mongkut of Siam.

And just as Mongkut’s kind offer was politely declined by the Lincoln administration (robbing us of some truly epic scenes of Union elephantine heavy cavalry stomping out the secession), traditional agriculture initiatives won the day. Few of us will ever know the taste of hippo brisket or the embrace of supple hippo leather on our furniture.

The details of the Hippopotamus Plan and some of its more eccentric and adventurous proponents are covered in a great article for Atavist Magazine, “American Hippopotamus,” by Jon Mooallem and is cited by Sarah Gaily in the forward of her novella as a source of info and inspiration. But as she notes, she moved her time table a bit earlier in Western history, mostly for the style.

And I salute her for her choice. While well past its heyday as a genre, I don’t think Americans will ever be truly done with the mythic Wild West. I never would have sought out a story of revenge and cattle rustling in the Mississippi delta—with hippos. But we’ve had Westerns with giant spiders, aliens, time travelers, and robots, so I say hip, hip for hippopotami!

The next novella in the series, Taste of Marrow, just came out today. I look forward to reading it.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.