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West with Giraffes is a wonderful novel based on the true story of the cross-country road trip America’s first giraffes took in 1938. It’s also a coming of age story that demonstrates the positive influence caring friends and gentle animals can have on a young man’s life.
One hundred and five-year-old WWII vet Woodrow Wilson Nickel (“Woody”) realizes his days are numbered and urgently begins writing down his memories of traveling from New York City to San Diego with a pair of young giraffes. What follows is a beautiful and emotional story.
Most of the book takes place in October 1938. America is still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression and the dust bowl that devastated the heartland. Woody is a 17-year-old orphan from the Texas panhandle who has fled the dust to live with his uncle in NYC. A powerful hurricane leaves him orphaned once again.
That same hurricane hit the ship the giraffes were traveling on and left the female giraffe with a wounded leg. Really, it’s a miracle the giraffes survived at all and that just added to their mystique. The giraffes are celebrities, a bright spot in a grim world, and the press adoringly chronicles their cross-country journey.
By a twist of fate, Woody finds himself driving the giraffes’ rig. The arrangement is only supposed to be for a short leg of the trip, but he is hopeful he’ll be able to drive the truck all the way to “Californy,” the promised land.
Woody is accompanied by a zookeeper, whom Woody calls Old Man. Old Man is a bit of a curmudgeon, but he has a tender place in his heart for animals, especially the giraffes. They are also trailed by “Augusta Red,” an aspiring young photographer who hopes her pictures of the giraffes will lead to her big break.
This group of animals and people make an interesting entourage as they travel across the depression-era American south. Along the way, they encounter a mix of treacherous, kindhearted, and down on their luck characters. All five also grow close even as they grapple with their own demons. Ultimately, the road trip is good for everyone and sets Woody on a much better path for his life.
I can’t say enough good things about West with Giraffes. The characters were so well developed (even the giraffes). Young Woody tugged at my maternal heart strings, and I was so glad when he found positive influences (and plenty of food) when he needed them. Even the secondary characters were created perfectly. Some could even be main characters in their own novels.
But for me, the giraffes stole the show, and the main characters are at their best when they are with the gentle giants. I’ve always liked giraffes, but I’ll never look at them the same way. I’m a big fan now.
I also liked how the different parts of America are depicted as the characters make their way West. The descriptions highlighted the vastly different but uniformly beautiful parts of this country, while the ma and pa motor courts and campgrounds along the Lee Highway made me a little nostalgic.
There are also some important history lessons about the dust bowl’s impact on the people who lived in the stricken areas. And did you know the director of the San Diego Zoo at the time was a woman named Belle Benchley? She was quite a groundbreaker!
I highly recommend West with Giraffes, especially to animal lovers and people who enjoy historical fiction.
Thanks for the excellent recommendation, Joanne!
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