West With Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge 

When I was eight years old, my mother, a single parent took my brother, and my sister, and me across the country on a Greyhound bus from New York City to Los Angeles, California. Her intent was for us to live there and start a new life. To her, California was the destination where dreams come true. But the trip turned into a traumatic experience for our family.

So, when I read the novel, West With Giraffes, I was reminded of my own trip across America. The two loveable giraffes featured in this novel, the stars of this story, are on a whirlwind road-trip to California, their container truck driven by a seventeen-year-old “down-and-outer” named Woodrow Wilson Nickel, known as Woody.

The story opens with Woody, a drifter, just barely surviving the catastrophic 1938 New York Harbor hurricane. When he is given the opportunity to drive two giraffes and a crusty old zookeeper named Mr. Riley Jones to California, Woody is excited and hopeful for the opportunity to learn about the mesmerizing animals and begin a new life on the West Coast.

Although from opposite backgrounds and lifestyles, Woody and Mr. Jones agree to assure safe transport of “Boy” and “Girl,” brother and sister giraffes, to their final destination, the world-famous San Diego Zoo. 

Faced with an array of obstacles travelers might expect in this scenario and then some surprise disasters on the road, Woody and Mr. Jones seem to find a rhythm with one another and even share hidden secrets from their pasts. But when Woody catches sight of a fiery red-haired young female photographer driving an expensive green Packard coupe, he is heart struck much to the disapproval of Mr. Jones.

The physical and emotional challenges experienced by the boy, the zookeeper and the red-haired young woman prove both poignant, and at times, heart-wrenching for the reader. Yet the core message of the story is joyful, thanks to the literary skills of the gifted author, Lynda Rutledge.

As I digested each page of this compelling read, I often felt like I was actually sitting with Woody and Mr. Jones in the cabin of the rickety old truck, cheering on the mighty duo in their transport of the two lumbering giraffes.

For me, a big plus was learning so many interesting facts about giraffes; their likes, dislikes, quirky diet, the diverse array of sounds they make when happy, sad, scared or angry. The collection of details from the author candidly portrayed the giraffe’s affectionate yet sometimes kick-ass nature.

I fell in love with the two long-necked beasts as they rocked ‘to and fro’ in the cramped trailer-moving across America in 1938 while the outbreak of World War II was in the news, threats from Hitler in the headlines and the United States teetering on the decision of whether or not to join Europe in its battle against tyranny.

The vivid image of the two giraffes spilled over into my dream one night in the middle of my read. In the dream, I ran my fingers down the smooth pelt of “Girl,” the female giraffe in the story. I gazed into her giant brown eyes. I fed “Boy” and “Girl” whole onions like Woody and Mr. Jones do in the book. I lay my head down in the straw as they both nibbled at my hair. Although admittedly it was just a dream, I felt as if I had my own intimate experience with them.

And so, upon closing the book on West With Giraffes, I suggested to my husband that we do an outing to the Oakland Zoo, located about sixty miles from our house near Santa Cruz, California. I had to be with giraffes while the story was fresh in my mind. At the zoo, we sat on a bench and watched four giraffes, three adults and a baby for at least forty-five minutes. I delighted in their every movement. One of them, possibly the mother of the little calf, sat down on the grass and stretched her long neck in such an artful way that I must have snapped twenty photos of her. And then we were lucky to catch the zookeeper leaning over the tall fence at the back of the vast field offering them giant tree shrubs to eat, and dropping some for the little one which I also caught on camera. Once at home, I picked up the book and read the last fifty pages a second time around.

Lynda Rutledge, the brilliant author, not only gifts readers with an engaging tale of two amazing wild animals but also periodically references Mrs. Belle Benchley, the first real-life female director of the renowned San Diego Zoo and best-selling author during the 1930’s era.

Should you have the pleasure to pick up this novel, get ready for a humorous, suspenseful, and romantic “coming of age” tale; a riveting read that may evoke more than a few tears.

Don’t be surprised to find yourself planning a day-trip to your local zoo and maybe even a trip to San Diego’s Balboa Park to meet the 21st century resident giraffes who followed “Boy” and “Girl.”

I give West with Giraffes a 5 out of 5 rating; a tall score for a novel that reaches new heights in so many ways. 

Linda S. Gunther is the author of six suspense novels: Ten Steps From The Hotel Inglaterra, Endangered Witness, Lost In The Wake, Finding Sandy Stonemeyer, Dream Beach and Death Is A Great Disguiser. Her essays and short stories have been featured in a variety of literary publications. www.lindasgunther.com