In an America that never was, the United States Government introduced hippos as an alternative source of livestock and meat. American Hippo by Sarah Gailey takes place in this crazy what-if there where cowboys ride hippopotamuses rather than horses, and the landscape of our country is changed irrevocably because of it.
Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.
Setting the stage: Gailey’s America
Before we get too far into it, I want to lay out some content warnings. American Hippo is a book for mature audiences. Not only for the (sometimes) foul language but also due to the violence and sexual implications. This is an adult book. Characters die.
Now that that’s out of the way let’s talk about the version of America Gailey creates.
In this alternate history, the federal government of the United States goes through with a bill to introduce hippos to the southern US marshes in the late 1800s. They expand the practice to feed a starving population, becoming a booming industry.
The book claims that the bill was introduced to Congress but was ultimately rejected, which is entirely true. Hippo ranching was a wild dream that almost came to fruition, which is just mind-boggling to think about. Luckily you don’t have to think too hard about it because Gailey did much of that work for us!
American Hippo review
When reading American Hippo, I was struck by how much drama there was, and I loved it. Every time I thought things would settle down, there seemed to be some new plot twist or character entanglement.
From sudden baby daddy reveals to shocking betrayals, even convoluted plans for a job promotion had me only guessing what could happen next. It certainly isn’t a book you can get bored with. I was on the edge of my seat pretty much the whole time I was reading.
Gailey introduces a colorful cast of characters, nearly all of whom quickly became near and dear to my heart. From the smooth-talking Houndstooth to the beautifully deadly Adelia, Gailey creates complex interpersonal relationships without wasting time telling you how those relationships work. The reader is shown how loyalties can be tested, and lifelong friendships can balance on the tip of a hippo’s tusk.
My personal favorite character in American Hippo was Archie. She was quick with a soothing word and quicker with her sticky fingers. I also quite enjoyed her unusual choice of weapon, the meteor hammer. I highly suggest checking out YouTube videos of demonstrations for readers who don’t know what they are. They’re a fascinating weapon and not easily mastered.
Of course, there was a hippopotamus counterpart for each human hopper (the hippo riding equivalent of a cowboy). Sometimes even two.
The hippos we got to know the best were Ruby and Rosa. While the other hippos had their personalities and quirks, these two stuck out to me. Not the least because their coloring was the rarest and most unique.
It’s crazy to think about how close to their hippos the characters are in the story. Have you seen hippos? They may look like gentle giants, but they’re downright terrifying. Their jaw strength is the strongest out of all land animals, and they even give crocodiles a run for their money. Yet somehow, Gailey almost makes these murderous blubber mammals cute and cuddly.
I really enjoyed American Hippo. It was a fun read, and I always had the urge to pull up a bag of popcorn when the drama started unfolding. I know it probably isn’t a book for everyone, and some parts are rough (i.e., after Adelia goes on the run), but I still really enjoyed it overall.
There was romance, heartbreak, betrayal, and hippos – so many hippos.
The last couple of chapters at the end of the book with extra stories was really neat too. It was hilarious finding out how Ruby got her golden tusks and why Houndstooth insisted Archie had only saved his life nine and a half times rather than ten.
The extra chapters may not have been strictly necessary for the story, but I still appreciated answers to small questions that popped up throughout the book. It also helped with world-building a little bit and firming up how the hippo industry could have changed the United States.
I do wish there had been some sort of epilogue, but I guess that just leaves the door open for sequels.
Overall, I give American Hippo 4.5 feral hippos out of five.
If you’re looking for a more fantastical read, check out our last book club pick, Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson!
Do you think you could hack it as a hopper, or would you stick to the non-marshy parts of the country?