Occasionally, you come across a book that is so unusual, so original that it stops you in your tracks. Case in point: West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge. The novel was Inspired by a true event—two giraffes in transit aboard the SS Robin Goodfellow from Africa to America shipwrecked in the 1938 “Long Island Express” hurricane. The tale is narrated by 105-year-old Woodrow Wilson Nickel from his VA hospital room as, in a race against time, he records the events of a short, pivotal period from his early life.
The year is 2025 and many species of wildlife, including giraffes, are near extinction thanks to us humans. At 17 Woody was orphaned, escaped the Dust Bowl, and made it to New York City where he got wind of the plan to transport the two stranded giraffes from New York to the San Diego Zoo. The novel recounts the audacious ocean to ocean odyssey. Woody steals a bicycle and takes off after old man Riley Jones who has been hired by San Diego Zoo doyenne Belle Benchley to transport the “towering creatures of God’s pure Eden.” Also hot on the tail of Riley Jones and the giraffes is “Red,” a pin-up pretty, young redheaded Margaret Bourke-White wannabe.
Part road trip, part coming of age story, part unrequited love story, the novel is studded with meticulously researched historical references. Woody and Riley’s journey takes them on the southern route through the Jim Crow south and across the Texas panhandle where Woody must face memories from his own tragic past. At the heart of the novel is the concept of home. As Riley says to Woody, “Home’s not the place you’re from, Woody. Home’s the place you want to be.” A wonderful, heart-warming story perfect for these dark times.
West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge. Lake Union Publishing, February 2021.
Reviewer bio: Cindy Dale has published over twenty short stories in literary journals and anthologies. She lives on a barrier beach off the coast of Long Island.
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