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In 1910, the United States—its population exploding, its frontier all but exhausted—was in the throes of a serious meat shortage. But a small and industrious group of thinkers stepped forward with an answer, a bold idea being endorsed by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and The New York Times. Their plan: to import hippopotamuses to the swamps of Louisiana and convince Americans to eat them.

The only thing stranger than the hippo idea itself was the partnership promoting it. At its center were two hard-bitten spies: Frederick Russell Burnham, a superhumanly competent frontiersman, freelance adventurer, and fervent optimist about America’s future—Burnham would be the inspiration for both the Boy Scouts and Indiana Jones—and Fritz Duquesne, a.k.a. the Black Panther, a virtuoso con man and cynical saboteur who believed only in his own glorification and revenge. Burnham and Duquesne had very recently been sworn enemies under orders to assassinate each other. They’d soon be enemies again. But for one brief and shining moment they joined behind a common cause: transforming America into a nation of hippopotamus ranchers.

In American Hippopotamus, Jon Mooallem brings to life a historical saga too preposterous to be fiction—a bracing and eccentric epic of espionage and hippos, but also of a conflicted nation on the threshold of a bewildering new century, deciding what kind of country it would be, and what beasts it would eat.

December 2013