By Julie Kish
West With Giraffes
A novel by Lynda Rutledge
Lake Union Publishing, 2021
Sometimes I’m lucky enough to come across a profoundly moving story written by a master storyteller, and West with Giraffes is one of those novels.
American author Lynda Rutledge has created a masterpiece that is part cross-country road trip, part historical fiction and part coming-of-age story. Above all else, it’s a story about the relationship between humans and animals.
The novel is inspired by the true story of two giraffes who made headlines when they embarked on a dangerous journey from Africa to the San Diego Zoo. They won the hearts of the public during Depression-era America and their trip was chronicled in national newspapers. The story is based on facts, but the author weaves fictional characters with real-life figures to bring the astonishing tale to life.
The setting is 1938, and Woody Nickel, a 17-year-old orphan, must leave his family farm after it is decimated by drought, dust and death. With nothing but the clothes on his back, he travels from the dust bowl of Texas to New York City, where a cousin promises him a job.
No sooner does he arrive in the city when it is hit with one of the most devastating hurricanes to ever hit the east coast. When his cousin is killed in the storm, Woody has no hope of finding work.
At the same time, two giraffes are nearing the end of a 52-day voyage from Africa to New York when their ship is caught in the same hurricane. Despite the damage to the vessel and the loss of life onboard, the giraffes survive and become known to an admiring public as the “hurricane giraffes.”
Woody stumbles upon the giraffes at the Brooklyn dock and is immediately captivated. “If ever I could claim to have seen the face of God, it was in the colossal faces of those giraffes.”
When he hears the giraffes are bound for San Diego, he decides to follow them to the “land of milk and honey.” The animals are coaxed into specially constructed crates and loaded onto the back of a precariously balanced flat-bed truck for the 12-day drive.
Woody steals a motorcycle and follows them. The vehicle frequently stops to feed and rest the animals, so Woody uses this time to befriend the giraffes and the old man caring for them, who happens to be the San Diego Zoo’s head keeper.
When the truck driver quits in the middle of the trip, Woody volunteers to drive the giraffes to San Diego. The road trip is full of colourful characters, treacherous roads and dangerously low overpasses.
It’s a heartwarming story about Woody’s connection to the giraffes and his ability to overcome adversity. The story is a true gem, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end.