Book Review: West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge

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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.

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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!

If you’d like to purchase West with Giraffes and support the ALS Association, click here. 

 

17 thoughts on “Book Review: West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge

  1. So glad you enjoyed the book, Michelle.
    We had a good discussion on it at Book Club last evening. Our meeting had been delayed quite awhile due to Covid concerns, so I had to review the book before I went.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Michelle! This is the perfect example of a book I would have never found myself–and now can’t wait to read! Thanks so much for your insightful reviews and recommendations!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, this sounds really good. Historical fiction is the fiction I read most, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. I’m especially intrigued by your discussion of the characters–thanks! Wonder if it’s been optioned yet???

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this charming recommendation! I have a girlfriend who is fascinated by giraffes (and books), and I am always looking for good cards/gifts for her birthday. Just ordered this book to give her this year – perfect! I love it when animals become “real” characters in books – a great writing feat.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Loved the book…as I was finishing it, I remembered a picture taken with my dad, and brother in front of a cage at the San Diego Zoo when I was around 2 in 1945. Looking at the small black and white photo, there it is…a sign reading UGANDA GIRAFFE(S)…unfortunately, they are not in the picture…a sweet memory…thank you for your review…wonderful…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I read this book after your recommendation and I too, loved the book. What a great tale told with vivid characters. The author does a great job of portraying the way of life during this difficult period and I felt like I was traveling right along with the giraffes. Having recently spent a night at an old restored motor inn (The Blue Swallow Inn in Tucumcari, NM – highly recommend it!), the descriptions of the motor inns and roadside stops were really vivid. Finally, loved that the story from the perspective of Woody was all about getting to Californy, the destination. It was truly his sole focus. Yet years later, when he is retelling the story, it really wasn’t so much about the destination but really the journey. A great way to look at life. Great recommendation.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. After your recommendation, we chose this book for our “family” book club (it really only ends up being 4 of us who read the books out of the extended family, but we still call it a family endeavor.) What a great book! As I believe I have told you before, Michelle, historical fiction is my jam. This book did not disappoint. Really liked the content about he dust bowl and the exodus to California. I did not know that California actually had police who were allowing or not allowing folks in during the Depression. Very interesting! I found it to be a book about redemption as well as a tale of a journey. Clearly both the Old Man and Woody were running from bad memories. But both were able to make something positive from their lives. And I agree that Boy and Girl stole the show. What amazing animals! Thanks for the recommendation! What a great read.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Loved this book!!! I just visited the author’s website and saw a photo of the traveling rig. Wonderful story; the author took me on a very adventurous trip!! One of my favorite books, and I read a lot. This would make a great movie!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m wondering if they will make a movie of it, too. And thanks for sharing the information about the photo of the rig. I was having a hard time picturing it. 🙂 I’ll definitely take a look.

      Like

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