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West With Giraffes Summary and Review

In the vast realm of historical fiction, there are stories that transcend time, capturing the essence of bygone eras while igniting our imagination and touching our hearts. 

West with Giraffes” by Lynda Rutledge is one such remarkable novel that seamlessly blends history and fiction to deliver a captivating tale of adventure, self-discovery, and the enduring bond between humans and animals. Published in 2021, this extraordinary work has taken the literary world by storm, garnering critical acclaim and captivating readers across the globe. 

Inspired by a true story, “West with Giraffes” transports us to the vivid landscape of 1938 America, where a 17-year-old protagonist embarks on an awe-inspiring cross-country journey, driving two giraffes and discovering his own identity along the way.

In this post, we will take a deep look into what this book is all about. We will look at its summary, followed by my review and finally, what are the lessons that you can learn along the way. 

So, whether you should read the book, or not, you can decide after reading the entire blog. 

And if you want to jump directly into the questions, we have this list of some amazing book club questions for West With Giraffes out there. 

West With Giraffes Summary 

Lynda Rutledge’s “West with Giraffes” is an engaging historical novel that blends themes of resilience, love, animal rights, and memory into the fabric of a young man’s self-discovery journey through 1930s America.

The narrative launches when a catastrophic hurricane hits New York. 

Two giraffes arrive amidst the chaos on a ship and instantly captivate 17-year-old Woodrow Wilson Nickel, who has just escaped the Dust Bowl. Woodrow, driven by adventure and a blossoming affection for the giraffes, follows the creatures. 

When the original driver of the giraffe transport rig abandons his duty due to a kick from one of the giraffes, Woodrow takes the wheel and embarks on an odyssey to California. 

On his way, he grapples with treacherous road conditions, societal prejudices, and persistent threats to the giraffes by Percival, a ruthless circus owner intent on exploiting the animals for profit.

Woodrow’s relationships with Riley Jones, the caregiver of the giraffes, and Augusta “Red” Lowe, a young journalist from New York documenting the journey for a photo-essay, add layers of complexity to his experiences. His bond with Riley undergoes a trial due to a temporary dalliance with Percival, and his emotions for Red deepen as he uncovers her status as a fugitive.

Woodrow confronts institutionalized racism through an interaction with a helpful Black community during a car breakdown and revisits his past trauma when returning to the Panhandle region. These experiences highlight the stark realities of the era and mold Woodrow’s character.

Tensions rise as the journey progresses, with conflicts that include a perilous flash flood in Texas, Red’s unexpected pregnancy, and Woodrow’s ultimate arrest by the police, who force him to choose between enlistment in the army or prison. Woodrow chooses the military, serving in World War II for seven years.

Upon his return from the war, Woodrow learns of Red’s death after childbirth and Riley’s passing. Despite these heartbreaking losses, the giraffes at the San Diego Zoo, who have flourished in his absence, provide him comfort

In his later years, Woodrow spends his time recounting the journey, etching Red’s story into history for her daughter. With his death, he leaves behind his written accounts of the journey, discovered and forwarded by a Veterans Affairs liaison.

In summary, “West with Giraffes” masterfully interweaves a tale of hope, resilience, and the potent bond between humans and animals into the historical timeframe of 1930s America. It stands as a testament to the transformative power of storytelling, charting the protagonist’s life journey that’s marked by personal growth, love, and a steadfast pursuit of justice for the animals he has vowed to protect.

west with giraffes summary

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West With Giraffes Review

Reading Lynda Rutledge’s “West with Giraffes” is an experience that I can only describe as a breath-taking journey through an untold chapter of American history, told from the perspective of an unusually observant and poetic observer, Woodrow Wilson Nickel.

The book weaves an intricate tale, bringing the hardships of the 1930s Dust Bowl era alive with evocative descriptions and characters that are as resilient as they are flawed. Woodrow, a young man marked by a traumatic past, becomes our guide on this cross-country trip that brims with adventure, conflict, and ultimately, transformation.

The giraffes, exotic and strangely majestic creatures, stand at the heart of the story, serving as an emblem of the oddity and beauty that life offers amidst tragedy. 

As Woodrow falls in love with these gentle giants, so did I. 

Through their journey, Rutledge successfully explores the themes of animal rights and the idea of choosing moral decency over personal gain. The relationship between Woodrow, Riley, and the giraffes is touching and will remind readers of the unspoken bonds that can form between humans and animals.

The depiction of racism, inequality, and hardship is also commendable. Through the interaction with the Jackson family, Rutledge doesn’t shy away from showing the prevalent racism of the time, yet does so with subtlety and respect.

Rutledge’s characters are a remarkable study of complexity. Riley, with his gruff exterior and empathy, became a character I rooted for. Red, on the other hand, with her determination and complex past, adds a layer of intrigue and tenderness to the narrative. 

The romantic tension between Red and Woodrow is beautifully understated, and their encounters leave a lingering sense of what could have been.

What struck me the most was how vividly the author brings each scene alive. 

The dangerous mountain drives, the tight underpasses, the threats of the police and rival circus owners, all contribute to a sense of tension that kept me turning the pages. 

Woodrow’s personal growth is portrayed seamlessly against this backdrop, making the novel an engaging blend of adventure and coming-of-age.

The story does take some heart-wrenching turns. 

The loss of Red, Riley, and the subsequent separation of Woodrow from the giraffes create moments of deep sorrow. Yet, the narrative remains hopeful, emphasizing resilience and the power of memory and storytelling. 

The manner in which Woodrow’s notes are passed on to Red’s daughter gives the story a poignant closure.

West with Giraffes” is a testament to Rutledge’s skill as a writer. Her ability to blend historical events, human-animal bonds, and a study of the human condition is nothing short of commendable. 

The book is an emotional roller coaster that leaves you with a sense of nostalgia, and an appreciation for the power of resilience and love. 

It’s a journey I’m glad I embarked upon, and a story I won’t forget anytime soon.

Also Read: The Four Winds Summary And Review

Key Lessons

1. Resilience Goes a Long Way

Throughout “West with Giraffes,” Woodrow displays a remarkable degree of resilience, which is one of the key themes the book conveys. 

This is particularly evident in the young man’s decision to follow the giraffes from New York to California, despite the daunting length and danger of the journey. 

Moreover, Woodrow’s resilience is tested repeatedly – dealing with hostile individuals like Percival, facing challenging weather conditions, and even confronting the trauma of his past when passing through the Panhandle. 

These examples from the narrative illustrate how resilience can help individuals navigate difficult situations and ultimately emerge stronger.

2. Empathy and Kindness are Important Traits

These themes are best illustrated through Woodrow’s interactions with the Black community when their rig’s tires blow out underneath a tight underpass. 

Initially exhibiting prejudiced views, Woodrow learns to appreciate the hospitality, kindness, and help that the Jackson family provides. 

This experience teaches him the value of empathy and kindness, debunking his preconceived biases, which is a lesson that readers can apply to their own lives.

3. You Need to Sacrifice and Commit to What’s Right

Woodrow’s journey in the novel also teaches us the importance of commitment to what is morally right, even when it involves personal sacrifice. 

This is clearly showcased when Woodrow has to decide between accepting Percival’s offer of a fortune or risk his future for the sake of the giraffes. 

He chooses the latter, demonstrating that standing up for what is right is more valuable than immediate personal gain.

4. Storytelling is a Powerful Trait

In “West with Giraffes,” the act of storytelling and the significance of memories play pivotal roles. Woodrow tells Red’s story to her daughter, carrying forward her legacy. 

This not only emphasizes the importance of storytelling in preserving personal and communal histories but also highlights how memories help form our identities and guide our actions. 

For example, Woodrow’s traumatic past shaped his decisions and actions during the journey. 

Through these instances, we can understand the essential role memory and storytelling play in our lives.

Final Thoughts

This book is a definite read from my side. If you are someone who likes tragic heroic tales with a background belonging to the 30s and 40s, then this book is just the right fit for you. 

Read the book.

Get inspired and fight back in life once again. 

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