Novelist Taylor Brown pens an ode to Georgia’s “Little Amazon”

The novel follows two brothers kayaking down the Altamaha River
The River of Kings by Taylor Brown

Courtesy of St. Martin's Press; Gennadi's Choice: Charlie McCullers

At 137 miles, the Altamaha River—the longest free-flowing river in Georgia—contains one of the state’s most undisturbed ecosystems. Also known as the “Little Amazon,” it’s home to a number of rare and endangered species, including sturgeons, bony-plated fish that can grow up to eight feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds. In the summers they launch high into the air (no one’s sure why) with such force they can injure or kill unlucky boaters.

In Taylor Brown’s brilliant second novel, brothers Hunter and Lawton Loggins kayak down the Altamaha to cast their father Hiram’s ashes into the ocean. He was killed, they’re told, by a “sturgeon strike.” As they paddle, they recall Hiram’s stories about the legendary Altamaha-ha, a fabled sea monster from the Mesozoic era.

The brothers’ story is interwoven with that of their father, a failed shrimper who struggled to raise his young sons along the banks of the river in the 1970s and 1980s. A third narrative takes place 400 years earlier, as Jacques Le Moyne, a character based on the real-life artist and cartographer, sketches the Georgia coast as part of an expedition to found a French settlement. Le Moyne spots a “monster, its spine armored like the giant lizards,” and we’re left to wonder: Is it the Altamaha-ha?

Brown’s prose reads like a love poem to the area’s ecology. It’s no wonder. The author was raised in St. Simons, just 20 miles north of the Altamaha’s mouth. On an overnight paddle trip in 2003, Brown and his buddies came across a shed adorned with animal skulls and gutted fish. “The mystery of that place—of what might have been going on there—became the seed of this novel,” he says.

Although Brown’s depiction of Native Americans, as encountered by Le Moyne in the 1500s, falls flat, the main characters of each era are vivid, complex, and deeply conflicted about their environment. The novel deftly reels its readers into a world where life and death are intimately entwined with the river’s ebb and flow.

Taylor Brown on…
His own (almost) Altamaha-ha spotting: “It turned out to be a feral hog swimming across the river.”

Drawing inspiration from the river: “It [has] a mythology all its own. It’s rumored to have been home to Scottish  highlanders and Spanish conquistadors.”

The hazards of research: “I was on a boat that ran aground, and my friends and I were forced to navigate home in the middle of the night, while the eyes of alligators burned.”

Pick up The River of Kings, a second novel from Georgia coast native Taylor Brown, on March 21.

This article originally appeared in our March 2017 issue.