I really like River of Teeth (May 2017) and Taste of Marrow (September 2017), Sarah Gailey’s Western hippo-caper novellas. They have a plot that revolves around an alternate U.S. history in which a plan to resolve the then-emerging meat shortage in the late 19th century by importing hippopotami from African colonies into the South was actually carried out. However, despite an enthusiastic James Buchanan signing the law into effect and hippo ranches being opened in Alabama, not all hippos take well to domestication or being reared as meat—especially since, herbivores or not, they’re perfectly happy to chomp the crap out of anyone who tries. The narrative is based around the premise that these feral hippos escaped into what is known as the Harriet, a region of federal marshland created by damming sections of the Mississippi to enable easy hippo rearing. Thus, feral hippos become the bane of the Mississippi, and much in the line of a traditional Western caper, the U.S. government hires a band of outlaws to deal with the problem. The story begins here.
There are fairly distinct differences between the two novellas though they have the same cast of primary characters. River of Teeth is short, brisk, and quite funny, while Taste of Marrow is much darker and struggles to reconcile itself to an ending with the possibility of happiness. I have to admit that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the abrupt shift in tone between the two because while the first one did have its death and gore, it still was very much an exciting heist, so I was more eager than worried. In contrast, the second novella chose to explore the aftermath and fallout from the first novella, and this meant near constant worry because everyone seemed to be struggling with what events had made of them. It wasn’t that these psychological scenarios weren’t possible, but more that several months had passed in the book ‘verse, making different people of the characters I thought I knew, and it took me quite a while to come to terms with this. I enjoyed both books, but feel like I enjoyed them in completely different ways—River of Teeth worked as action-adventure escapism for me, whereas Taste of Marrow had a bunch of melodramatic hurt-comfort and family feels.
The alternate history in these pages has a diverse primary cast that includes a bisexual, British-Korean protagonist, Winslow Remington Houndstooth; his Black, non-binary demolitions expert and love interest, Hero Shackleby; the fat, queer, and sexually desirable con artist Frenchwoman, Regina Archambault; and the deadliest pregnant Latina mercenary, Adelia Reyes. And several hippos! Additional characters include obligatory unlikeable white men such as Cal Hotchkiss in the first book and Whelan Parrish popping back up in the second. In an interview with Alasdair Stuart for Tor, Gailey acknowledges that her creation of this world hinges on a great deal of handwaving:
I definitely cut a lot of things from historical records, and because I was working in a shorter format, I was able to do it with some judicious handwaving. The book takes place in the 1890s, and features a diverse cast that encounters very little discrimination. If someone were to extrapolate the history of the world that had to develop in order for this story to happen, they’d probably need to cut out a lot of slavery and colonialism and Western Imperialism from America’s history.
I can see Gailey’s intentions—it would be hard to write any sort of quick, fun novella while also engaging with the issues these characters would likely face in a version of history that attempted realism (with bonus hippos). I understand the need for stories with diverse characters that aren’t focused heavily on the hate aimed at these people, and I cannot tell you what a relief it was to read these narratives without having to constantly fear that the very next page would be vile racism expressed by a character (even if it was then dealt with and called out), or worrying that someone would misgender Hero or express violence towards them as a result of their own prejudices. It was a wonderful change to sense the books weren’t going to hurt to read after a while, were willing to cut me a break from everything that’s been happening in 2017 and all the years before it, and that they didn’t need to shove this type of violence in my face to show me their truth (other than brief but fairly brutal hippo-on-human violence and vice versa). I was grateful.
At the same time, the novellas aren’t necessarily kind either, because there’s a sort of quiet violence running unacknowledged through them. It feels a lot like what I’ve heard called ‘The Hamilton Effect’ (though Hamilton is probably not the first to do this)—the presumption that exchanging traditionally white bodies for non-white bodies or marginalised people doesn’t reproduce violence and opens up a space for traditionally excluded identities within narratives of Americana otherwise denied them. As people far smarter than me have pointed out though, this ends up being a far more conflicted moment rather than straightforwardly a cause for celebration. As Debbie Reese and Adrienne Keene both point out, Hamilton speaks frequently of the American Dream, but despite reclaiming this dream for various other ethnicities and cultures, Native American lives and cultures are erased in this representation. In effect, even while celebrating diversity, the play reproduces a version of settler colonialism—a less white settler colonialism perhaps, but one that is nonetheless violent particularly given the ongoing war for survival for indigenous lives and cultures in the U.S. In some sense, as William J Richardson often points out, this is almost a more violent moment for the fact that this settler colonialism is being exported to Brown and Black bodies, creating them as part of a hegemonic imperialist invading structure—the Americana that promises Black and Brown people a piece of the pie that white people tend to get most of, while refusing to acknowledge that doing this is to partake of its history of violent settler imperialism perpetrated against indigenous nations. On the one hand, there is representation; on the other, representation means complicity in violent ongoing colonialism—this is the discomforting man behind the curtain of Hamilton.
For all its care with its chosen protagonists, River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow are stories with the Hamilton Effect—they reappropriate the (usually white antihero) Western heist and caper for marginalised people, but River of Teeth repeats the exclusion of indigenous tribes such as the Choctaw (which is a federally recognised tribe in the Mississippi today), as well as the Biloxi tribe, the Chickasaw tribe, the Houma tribe, the Natchez tribe, the Ofo tribe, the Quapaw tribe, and the Tunica tribe who would have historically had a presence near the Mississippi in River of Teeth. In Taste of Marrow, the same erasure is continued in the regions of Pontchartrain and Baton Rouge. While keeping Gailey’s explanation in mind, I still found myself struggling to figure out how the sort of violent settler colonialism on the one hand that clearly hadn’t changed could be somehow reconciled with a lack of overt violence and racism aimed at non-white ethnicities and non-binary identities because these are so often drawing from same/similar sources. And, if I was to accept that this world was somehow more accepting on faith, then the erasure of those indigenous individuals within this narrative implied that these identities were not accorded the same leeway. I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
One of the few representations I’ve seen that reappropriates the complexities of the Western for marginalised people while centring the conflict for Native identities is CBC’s short-lived Canadian feminist Western TV show, Strange Empire (2014) set at the Alberta-Montana border in 1869 with a Métis protagonist. It isn’t perfect, and because it wants to be realistic it isn’t the escapist romp of River of Teeth, but it engages with the reality that writing a cowboy myth (or a hippo-riding myth) doesn’t get less racist with the exclusion of Native identities; in fact, exclusion from narratives and representation is one of the primary ways in which erasures of the need for reparations and ongoing histories of violence continue.
Additionally, I’m unsure about the manner in which the novellas chose to represent its marginalised characters both with and without microaggressions because it felt like the book chose to refuse them intersectional lives in favour of a single angle. So openly bisexual Houndstooth is never the target of biphobia or homophobia, but he is singled out for his visible otherness—his ethnicity as British-Korean. Hero as a non-binary Black person is twice depicted as wary of questions regarding their gender but, as Zina Hutton points out in her review of the book, aside from a single mention of their skin as “ink-dark” in River of Teeth there’s very little or no indication of how fraught and complex navigating the South would be for a Black person, even free and without overt racism aimed at them. There’s no indication of their having a distinct experience of this as compared to any of their companions even within their singular POV. When Archie is discussed, her voluptuous figure is created as a focus for microaggressions in River of Teeth, but her sex, her genderbending, and her status as a Frenchwoman never are. When Adelia is focused on, it’s her pregnancy that gets referenced, not her Latina ethnicity. It’s an odd sort of approach that tries to divert attention from intersections to single factors, and it’s interesting to think about what this means in terms of violence removed versus violence preserved in Gailey’s worldbuilding. I’m both compelled and confused by this notion of presenting one angle to absent the other. I agree on the one hand because power structures are historical and interdependent and this means that, for example, some queer spaces can be racist, nationalist, and ableist because colonial white supremacy can allow for this and ableism is horribly ubiquitous in the world. At the same time, I don’t understand how racism in the novel is directed at Houndstooth and not Hero, especially in a story set in the American South and with the existing history of racial hierarchies existing outside of the book’s worldbuilding.
In some sense it’s jarring to read this—for example, in order not to have overt racism aimed at him, Houndstooth’s ethnicity as British-Korean is never revealed. In fact, while I knew he was being othered, I had no idea he was of Korean descent until Zina mentioned having read it in the book’s Tor review. I feel I could have read Houdstooth as partly any ethnicity with “sharp cheekbones” that’s othered (and there are a lot of them) and it would have made little difference. It’s the sort of free-floating signifier that makes no sense even in a fictional world where race isn’t supposed to matter (but in this case clearly does) because a British-Korean person is going to be treated differently than a British-Indian person or a British-Mexican person; they aren’t going to have the same issues even as they each navigate othering and racism aimed at them. It felt rather like coming into a family argument halfway through, where everyone has retreated into half sentences and frosty silence and having to sit, unsure and worried, through the rest of the evening.
This isn’t to say that the characters aren’t well-written or well-rounded—I definitely felt like I knew them at the end of both novellas—but that I wasn’t precisely sure what aspects specific to diverse worldbuilding I should keep and which parts I should disavow. For example, one of the most interesting scenes for me took place in Taste of Marrow between Archie and U.S. Marshal Gran Carter, a Black man who is Archie’s love interest. The scenario had Archie and Carter each arguing that they’d worked all their lives for their particular professions—Carter to be a U.S. Marshal and Archie as a con artist—and Carter’s presumption that Archie would give up her work once they were together. There is the implied complication here of Carter possibly having a warrant for Archie’s arrest (suggesting that she might be in danger of being hanged). While the argument was definitely about challenging Carter’s patriarchal assumptions and the largely grey moral area of law and order within which the novellas take place, I wasn’t sure whether or not I should also be considering the histories of racism that Carter would have had to negotiate in becoming a U.S. Marshal. I wanted to, since this would have been a far more complex conversation then with the attendant worries of what this would mean if he failed to perform his duties or was found consorting with a known criminal, aside from Archie’s position as a white woman within patriarchy, but Gailey’s creation of a space with “very little discrimination” meant that I couldn’t say for sure whether this was a factor or not. This is what I mean by being unable to wrap my head around the worldbuilding in the novellas, because this would be a different conversation in each instance and the duology offers me no way to be sure which of them it endorses. I suspect, from the way the narrative is framed, that I’m supposed to be taking Archie’s side in this, since she gets to have the last word on it and talk about forgiving Carter for his presumption, but I find myself really uncomfortable because of these undercurrents that I’m (possibly?) meant to leave unconsidered.
Much like the nebulous racial descriptions that seem to appear in single sentence fragments I can count on the fingers of one hand and the odd presence/absence of prejudice, there’s a weird disconnect with culture and community in River of Teeth. I think this is the result of trying to cram as many marginalised identities into the space of a five person team as possible, but it’s an odd thing I’ve started to notice in media that’s seeking to be more diverse in its representation—you can’t have two people of the same ethnicity or marginalisation. If you do, one of them is either a family member or part of the secondary cast, fairly quickly absented, or about to die. This is strange because people, especially people who experience prejudice, tend to gravitate towards communities that are similar to themselves so that this is less of a factor. Some of this is definitely the result of economic factors in play, but a lot of it tends to be social acceptance. This is also why expression of culture is visible in food, architecture, graffiti, clothing, hair and makeup, language use, and so much more. This is why representations of LGBTQA+ and cultural communities are important as part of media including queer representation because it’s terrifying to be a monolith and an outsider. A friend, Gus, has previously noted that trans characters in particular are often written without any trans friends, and this is definitely the case for Hero as well. This is what is missing when you have only one representative of a particular identity. It also elides the complexity of those cultural spaces which may welcome you on one axis but dismiss you on another. This is what makes River of Teeth in particular, as the foregrounding novella, feel strangely empty to me—the feeling that although I’m getting all these different identities, they’re singular and cut off and not connected to other people or existing communities. There’s an implication of the alienation of the traditional Western, a sort of lone wolf trope, but it’s happening within a small group, many of whom express familiarity or intimacy with each other, and I don’t know how to reconcile that singularity with the fact that an accepting community is so key to safety and acceptance of marginalised people—the many together versus the one alone. Maybe this is to do with the fact that they don’t necessarily face that sort of prejudice in this world and therefore don’t feel the need to band together; maybe it’s because the novellas never really mention food (for example) and all the cultural associations that go with it—I couldn’t say. This isn’t necessarily a fault specific to these novellas, and it is in part the constraints of the Western genre, but it’s a lonely thing to read. I don’t know how else to describe it.
Taste of Marrow seems to expand on this a bit by indicating that some characters are isolated by choice (Hero, Adelia) and some have long term friendships (Houndstooth, Archie, Carter) that bind them together. I liked how this difference was made evident in the manner that each of them responded to the loss of the other group. Houndstooth was melodramatic and on edge, Archie was upset and long-suffering, Hero was conflicted about the loneliness that awaited them if they departed for home, and Adelia was tired and determined and changing. I loved how they essentially formed found family units and these were strained and terrible at times, and had the possibility of falling apart at any moment, but kept going because that was where they chose to be and who they chose to be supporting. I’m not ashamed to say I wept through the last few pages of Taste of Marrow because after everything, the book didn’t offer me an easy ending for any of the characters because they aren’t easy people. It was so compelling that I had to strangle a pillow while howling “WHYYY” at the ceiling.
Despite my concerns with the worldbuilding, there were so many points that made me ridiculously happy. I really enjoyed Hero's presentation as a Black person who is amazing at mechanical engineering and the science of explosives and poison and is so great at getting things done, and that throughout River of Teeth Houndstooth is constantly glowing at them with love and pride. Gus loved these choices in particular, noting “I'm glad Houndstooth is super in love with them—Black trans people are definitely a demographic that doesn't tend to get a lot of representation, much less in stories where they are allowed to love and be loved.” I loved that Archie and Houndstooth had an easily discernible affection between them, and that she is clearly pragmatic as all hell. Their relationship in Taste of Marrow repeatedly reduced me to tears. I found it hilarious that Houndstooth carrying a travel kettle became a plot point late in River of Teeth because it was one of the most British things I can think of—I have so many friends in the UK whom the need for a proper cup of tea and a good travel kettle would speak to on a deep and profound level. I’ve yet to figure out why Houndstooth was the one put in charge of the caper in the first novella despite being the least useful person in the group—bless you, Hero, your love interest is pretty and loves you but you’re clearly the brains of this operation. I liked that the first book was largely self-enclosed because I am genuinely terrible with cliffhangers, being very excitable and lacking any patience whatsoever. I liked that the hippos had a lot of personality, though it was weird that the descriptions meant I could picture the hippos more clearly than I could picture many of the characters at times.
All in all, the novellas ended up being the sort of fantasy capers that felt great the night before but made me wake up in the morning with mild misgivings, which, although it sounds terrible, is actually a good thing. They made me want to talk about them with people and seek others out who were talking about the plot. I needed to sit down and examine why I felt certain parts worked so much better than the others, and all those things that ached like a sore tooth after. I know Gailey didn’t particularly want to talk about imperialism in U.S. history but it’s almost impossible to read the book without thinking of how, if this had taken place, we’d likely be looking at a history filled with massive exports of hippos from Africa as part of imperialist looting of colonised resources and widespread hippo farming forcibly begun on colonies with resources diverted or completely negated from their original indigenous purposes. In many ways, the books are an alternate history Western caper, in many ways they feel like the same old silencing story. Some days I’ll want to escape into that space because I enjoy the fantasy, and sometimes it’ll feel like that fantasy is weighing on me—I’ll just have to wait and see.