West With Giraffes, by Lynda Rutledge

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

How the Word is Passed, by Clint Smith

This is a remarkable book unlike any other than I have read as I have explored over the past two years books on racism, anti-racism, caste, mass incarceration, the realities of slavery. This book is in many ways a travelogue. But a very specific travelogue, exploring sites all over the US – and one in Africa – that illuminate our history with enslavement and its aftermath. Smith visits and talks to other visitors and guides at:

  • Jefferson’s home at Monticello, Virginia, where he takes a tour that not many others take, seeing the realities of Jefferson as a slave-owner and as the father of enslaved children;
  • Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, which is the only plantation devoted to looking at life from the perspective of the enslaved;
  • Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest and one of the most brutal prisons in the United States, built on the site of a former plantation, where African-Americans represent 76% of the incarcerated population;
  • Blandford Cemetery in Virginia, the resting place of over 30,000 Confederate soldiers, where he attends a Sons of Confederate  Veterans (SCV) commemoration celebration;
  • Galveston Island, Texas, where the last enslaved people were finally informed of their freedom after the end of the Civil War and where the Juneteenth celebration was born;
  • the Wall Street area of lower Manhattan in New York City, most of which was built by enslaved persons and which housed a thriving slave auction site until 1762; and
  • Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, where 33,000 people were chained and passed through the House of Slaves and the Door of No Return to be loaded into the holds of ships for the “Middle Passage” cross-Atlantic trip to permanent enslavement in the colonies and the emerging United State; this is a place where today the local population grapples with how to teach their history to their children.

What is remarkable about this book to me is Smith’s gentle courage. He manages to talk directly, but without accusation, with those who do not see life through the same lens. We hear from organizers of the SCV celebration, the tour guides and gift shop proprietor at the prison in Angola, along with many others. He hears their stories and then gently asks them to see things from the Black American point of view.

In a beautiful epilogue, Smith talks with his grandparents. They tell of stories received from their grandparents who were enslaved. They remember their own stories of the Jim Crow south.

Smith’s prose evokes clear images of the places he visits and the people with whom he talks. This is a beautiful book. If you’re interested in dipping your toe into some of the recently published books on “our original sin” and its aftermath, this is an excellent place to begin.

— by Jeanie Smith

Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell

As the author tells us in her opening Historical Note: “In the 1580s, a couple living on Henley Street, Stratford, had three children: Susanna, then Hamnet and Judith, who were twins.  The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven.  Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.”  And in her closing Author’s Note, O’Farrell writes, “This is a work of fiction, inspired by the short life of a boy who died in Stratford, Warwickshsire, in the summer of 1596.”  

But the book is so very much more.  The story is not much about this boy, Hamnet, nor about his father, who is never named in the book, only referred to, first, as “the boy,” and later “the Latin tutor,” or “the husband.”  This is a story of Agnes, Hamnet’s mother, Shakespeare’s wife.  It is about her strangeness among women of her time; about her knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants; about her fierce love for her husband and her family; about her ability to sense what is wrong under the guise of the normal; about her ability to manipulate the patriarchal system to make happen what is best for the people around her. 

The flyleaf on the book jacket describes Agnes as “a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people.”  I would disagree – While her gifts as a healer and in understanding plants and potions are undeniable, I would argue that she has a profound understanding of herself and the people with whom she lives. 

At every turn, we see a woman so in touch with herself and with her community that she is able to defy community mores and truly be her own true self. 

This is a beautifully written work, full of such descriptions of sixteenth century English life that we can feel and smell and almost touch the streets, the houses, the farms.  But again, so much more.  These relative simply sentences capture better than anything I have ever read the reality of labor:  “She feels another pain coming, driving towards her, getting closer, like thunder over a landscape.  She turns, she crouches, she pants through it, as she knows she must, holding tight to a tree root.  Even in the throes of it, when it has her in its clutches, when it drives everything from her mind but the narrow focus of when it might end, she recognises that it is getting stronger.  It means business, this pain.  It will not leave her be.  Soon it will not let her rest or gather herself.  It means to force her out of herself, to turn what is inside outside.”  

And surely, the grief that comes with the death of her son is so magnificently written that we too are overcome. 

I wish I had the words to recommend this book as highly as I’d like to.  Alas, I don’t.  But it is among the best books I have ever read, a book that holds you so tightly that you don’t want to put it down, much less begin reading another.  It is a gem.

Jeanie Smith