West With Giraffes is a charming novel based on historical fact. Lynda Rutledge has taken the 1938 acquisition by the San Diego Zoo of two giraffes from Africa and told us their story. Belle Benchley, aka The Zoo Lady, was the first female director of a zoo, although she was not accorded her rightful title until she had been running the zoo for many years. She purchased two young giraffes from Uganda and had them shipped to New York. During their voyage, a massive hurricane nearly killed the female and destroyed people and property all along the eastern seaboard.
Our story begins with the journey of the two giraffes across a United States countryside mired in Depression. The giraffes provided much-needed excitement and entertainment as they proceeded through cities and small towns on their cross-country trip. Imagine trying to truck two giraffes across the country without any interstate highways!
That’s the factual part. The rest, while based on these historical facts, is both conjecture and delightful flight of fancy by Rutledge. She introduces us to Woodrow Wilson Nickel, whom we first see at the advanced age of 105 in a nursing home, trying to write the story of his youth. He remembers himself at 17 years old, starving, penniless, orphaned, arriving in New York from Dust Bowl west Texas in search of the only relative he knows. “Cuz,” though, has died in the hurricane. Woody spies the giraffes at the dock in New York harbor and is mesmerized. He steals a motorcycle and follows them to their quarantine location where he hides, steals whatever food he can find, watches and waits. When they begin their trip west, with their handler Riley Jones and a driver he has hired, Woody does whatever it takes to follow along.
But so does “Red,” a young woman with a camera, a “borrowed” green Packard and a passionate longing to become a famous photographer like Margaret Bourke White. She is hell-bent on taking photos of the entire journey that she will sell to Life Magazine. Woody is pretty mesmerized by Red, too! Not too long into the story, Woody is hired by Riley when the truck driver shows up drunk one day.
Adventure follows adventure as they meet up with various challenges (like mountain roads) and unscrupulous folks along the way.
This book is not just a fun read, a good story engagingly told. It’s also a pretty clear picture of the state of the people of this country during the Depression. The description of Dust Bowl Oklahoma and Texas is wrenching. And the snapshot of “Okies” being turned away at the California state line is heartbreaking. More often than not, however, the resilience and determination of the characters – and their love of the giraffes – give the book a hook into our hearts that leaves us smiling.
— Jeanie Smith