This is not a book I would have ordinarily chosen — just not a topic or time period of particular interest to me. But I read it based on a friend’s recommendation. For most of the book I would have awarded three stars, but by the end I gave it four on Goodreads.
Based on a true story, WEST WITH GIRAFFES is a journey through the United States in the late 1930s. Two African giraffes, who barely survive the 1938 Hurricane while crossing the Atlantic, make it to New York City. There they begin a cross country trip to their new home at the San Diego Zoo, followed all the way by newspaper accounts and a public weary of bad economic and political news.
The zoo sends their own Mr. Jones to supervise the move and, after a series of unexpected developments, he hires a 17 year-old orphan to drive the oversized vehicle. Turns out the boy, Woody (the book’s narrator), has an affinity for animals and this novel is really his coming of age story.
Woody’s deep connection with the NOT-always gentle giants and his own desperate desire to get to California make him a loyal employee and together Jones and Woody wind up working hard and facing danger to ensure the safe arrival of the two giraffes. Because the traveling animals are not just objects of curiosity all along the way. There are also those who will pay any price to possess them.
What I loved best about the book was the chance to travel back in time (to NOT so long ago) and see how different the country was just 80 years ago. This is a book about a cross-country drive in a much less populated country, before there was a national highway system. Before major roads were peppered with food and hotel chains. Or even guard rails. This is a time when heavy rain 100 miles away might close the only road west, for fear of flash flooding, leaving hundreds of travelers stranded in the middle of nowhere. And since this story takes place during the era of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, remember there are also thousands of hungry and desperate “Okies” also heading west, toting all their possessions, looking for any kind of work, and occupying makeshift homes in improvised Hoovervilles.
One more suggestion. If you, like me, are tempted to give up anytime in the middle of the story, don’t. If you stick with it, you’ll be surprised by a truly lovely ending.
More about the author, Lynda Rutledge.
Click to read more about these two giraffes, Lofty and Patches.