West With Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge

BOOKNOTES from the Fruitville Readers

West With Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge   2021 FICTION

An emotional, rousing novel inspired by the incredible but true story of two giraffes who made headlines and won the hearts of Depression-era America.

Woodrow Wilson Nickel, age 105, feels his life ebbing away. But when he learns giraffes are going extinct, he finds himself recalling the unforgettable experience he cannot take to his grave. 

His story is set in the momentous year of 1938. The Great Depression lingers. Hitler is threatening Europe, and world-weary Americans long for wonder. They find it in two giraffes who miraculously survive a hurricane while crossing the Atlantic. What follows is a twelve-day road trip in a custom truck to deliver Southern California’s first giraffes to the San Diego Zoo. Behind the wheel is the young Dust Bowl rowdy Woodrow, a 17-year-old orphan, on an adventure of a lifetime.  Inspired by true events, the tale weaves real-life figures with fictional ones, including the world’s first female zoo director, a crusty old man with a past, a young female photographer with a secret, and a few “bad guys.”  As they travel, Woody learns by watching the Old Man how to keep the giraffes calm by talking to them and he discovers feeding them onions can maneuver the huge beasts into safer conditions. (This Reader will never think of onions the same, again!)  In return, the giraffes hum, indicating their contentment.  (It’s a fact, giraffes hum!)

Major historical events are skillfully evoked as the backdrop of the story:  the Hurricane that began the drama of the story, Hitler and the advent of WWII, the Great Depression, and the tragedy of the Dust Bowl that had made Woodie an orphan.  As he drove, Woodie saw all the sorrow of his own life played out around him as Okies headed west hoping to find new lives in California and “Hooverville” settlements dotted the landscape.  One vivid episode evoked the vicious racial attitudes of the time that warned “colored people” not to let the sun set on them in “Sunset Towns.” The real story of the giraffes was a wonder for the world-weary Americans.  

The book is part historical saga, a coming-of-age love story that also celebrates the grace of animals, the kindness of strangers, and the passing of time that presses the necessity to tell a story before it is too late.  This Reader probably would not have picked up this book to read, but thanks to my Book Club, (the Fruitville Readers) this charming, heartwarming story based on a true event ended up on my reading list.   This is a book This Reader thinks is too good to miss.  ——– Fruitville Reader Chris Lee