West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge is a charming historical fiction. It is the coming of age story of “Woody Nickel”, a Dust Bowl orphan from the Texas Panhandle who travels cross country with a pair of giraffes.
Rutledge, while researching a book on the San Diego Zoo, learned about two giraffes who arrived in NYC on a boat that barely survived the extremely destructive 1938 Long Island hurricane. The giraffes then traveled cross country to their new home at the San Diego Zoo. Using that premise, she built a fictional tale of their trip and their human companions.
The book is the story of 17 year old Woody, who learns about life, love, and animals on his journey. The story is told from the eyes of an 105 year old Woody, who lives in a nursing home and is frantically trying to get his story on paper before it is too late.
The book is beautifully written, capturing the desperation of the period. The country is filled with Hobos, Hoovervilles, and news of Hitler on the rise in Europe. The man characters, Woody, “the Old Man”, and Red, are all running from something. Woody has recently buried his mother, father, and sister and is looking for a better life in “Californey”. The Old Man is a no nonsense zoo keeper, who loves animals and despite appearing tough, actually has a soft spot. Red is an aspiring photojournalist who is chasing her dreams and a bucket list. But the stars of the book are Boy and Girl, the two young giraffes. Boy and Girl are portrayed with strong personalities of their own, and will capture your heart.
The journey is filled with lots of adventure. There are close calls with weather, bad roads, the law, and people who want to steal the giraffes. Woody, the Old Man, and Red will do whatever it takes to protect the giraffes, and deliver them safely to San Diego.
The book has cleverly woven into it some serious messages about nature, family, and forgiveness. I picked this book for a book club (always a stressful thing – will people like my choice?) and everybody really enjoyed it. Not long ago, I read Hannah Kristin’s The Four Winds, and think this is the better book about that time in history.