West with Giraffes

Lynda Rutledge

Historical Fiction 2021 | 355 pages


The story is narrated by Woodrow Wilson Nickel, a fictional character. When the story opens, he is 105, and being the age he is, he wishes to write of the experience of a lifetime, one he had when he was only seventeen.

Inspired by true events, the tale weaves real-life figures with fictional ones, including the world's first female zoo director, at the San Diego Zoo.  Two giraffes, named Boy and Girl, travel from Europe on a ship in 1938, and as they enter New York harbor, so does a hurricane.  West with Giraffes is the story of Woody Nickel who, having lost both his parents and his baby sister in the Dust Bowl in the Texas Panhandle, has traveled east to find Cuz, the boss of his third cousin.  He sees at the harbor these two giraffes, barely alive, and manages to finagle his way to sign on with Old Man to help drive Boy and Girl to San Diego.  And the adventures begin.

The story line is awesome; the connection to truth is intriguing.  There were moments I couldn't wait to turn the page, and many other moments I was simply bored. The writing was very inconsistent to me.  I read a lot of magazines while reading West with Giraffes, because I was often drawn to distractions, so I could put the book down.

One problem I had is I could not picture the rig, which made virtually every scene rather foggy. Rutledge was much better at telling the story than showing the story ... a writer's curse of death.  I finally looked this up on google and found about a half-dozen photos of rigs, all decidedly different, all carrying two giraffes each.  These photos gave me a better feel for what they may have been traveling in and wiped away a bit of the fog.

One reviewer wrote that the sentences were passive.  Even once I read this, I couldn't pick out passive sentences, but I had the feeling there was a dampening of the story, like the reader had on headphones or was under water.

Another reviewer writes:

"Woody drives for a while.
They stop so the giraffes can eat.
They run into road trouble.
Red is following them and takes pictures.
They solve their trouble.
They stop for the night.
Repeat the same sequence tomorrow, and the next day."

I think she hit the nail on the head.

I do not know quite how to explain this ... it is something we talk about in coaching ... putting a lid on it. I felt the whole time that there was a lid on this story, holding the energy down and trapping it inside.  If she had had fewer crises (instead of one every day) but let them explode ... be deeper, bigger, more interesting, more filled with action and emotion (I SO wanted to know more about the seven Black brothers and the big family's granddaughter) ... the story would have been more compelling.  If she had explored Old Man or Red in greater depth, instead of being obsessed with their secrets, we might have discovered more about who they are, what they felt, even their histories, about which we knew nothing, the story would have been more compelling.  We only came to know one coming-of-age character, Woodrow Wilson Nickel, and that was not enough.

Two members of my book club recommended West with Giraffes for our March read.  I will be fascinated to hear what they have to say.  In the meantime, I don’t recommend this book.  Guess I will return to my magazines now.

February 2024