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West With Giraffes Summary, Characters, Review and Themes

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.

This book by Lynda Rutledge is one such novel that seamlessly blends history and fiction to deliver a tale of adventure, self-discovery, and the enduring bond between humans and animals.

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 

At its heart is 17-year-old Woodrow Wilson Nickel, a character shaped by the harsh realities of the Dust Bowl. 

His life takes a dramatic turn when he witnesses the arrival of two giraffes amid a devastating hurricane in New York. Enchanted by these majestic creatures, Woodrow decides to join their cross-country voyage to California, a decision that sparks a grand adventure and a profound personal transformation.

This adventure, however, is not without its trials. 

Woodrow faces the formidable challenges of the road – dangerous mountain paths, narrow bridges, and endless traffic, all threatening the safety of his precious cargo. 

Amidst these physical obstacles, he also confronts the harsh social realities of the time: rampant animal abuse, oppressive racism, and economic despair.

The novel introduces a vibrant cast of characters, each adding depth to Woodrow’s journey. 

There’s Riley Jones, the keeper of the giraffes, whose empathy and struggles with the circus owner Percival – a stark embodiment of animal cruelty – play a crucial role in the story. 

Then there’s Augusta “Red” Lowe, a spirited young journalist from New York, whose ambitions and complex personal life intertwine with Woodrow’s fate.

Woodrow’s voyage is as much an external journey across America as it is an internal journey of self-discovery. 

He grapples with his past, including a traumatic incident involving his father, and faces moral dilemmas that test his character. His burgeoning friendship with Red and Riley helps him navigate these challenges, ultimately leading him towards a path of empathy and resilience.

The narrative reaches its climax as Woodrow must confront his deepest fears and make a pivotal decision about his future. 

The conclusion of his journey brings both loss and revelation, leading to a poignant finale where the enduring power of memory and storytelling is elegantly underscored.

Characters

  1. Woodrow Wilson Nickel, aka Woody: At the heart of the story is Woody, a 105-year-old man in 2025, who reminisces about his remarkable journey as a 17-year-old driving two giraffes across America. His narrative forms the backbone of the story, offering a blend of youthful vigor and the wisdom of old age.

  2. Mr. Riley Jones, aka Old Man: The head keeper of the San Diego Zoo and the architect of the giraffes’ cross-country voyage. Riley is a man of compassion and determination, playing a crucial role in guiding Woody and ensuring the safe transport of the giraffes.

  3. Augusta, aka Red: A spirited, ambitious photographer aspiring to work for Life magazine, Red is a central figure in Woody’s journey. Her passion for capturing the giraffes’ odyssey on film adds depth and perspective to the narrative.

  4. Wild Girl and Wild Boy: The heart and soul of the journey, these two giraffes are more than just animals being transported; they symbolize hope, beauty, and the bond between humans and nature. Their presence is transformative for all who encounter them.

  5. Earl: The initial driver of the journey, whose abrupt departure on the first night sets the stage for Woody’s unexpected role in the adventure.

  6. Lionel Abraham Lowe: Red’s husband and a reporter, Lionel’s background and relationship with Red add layers to her character and motivations.

  7. Augie Ann: The daughter of Red and Lionel, Augie Ann is a symbolic bridge between the past and present, linking the historical journey to the future.

  8. Mr. Jackson, aka Big Papa: The patriarch of a family that offers shelter to Woody and the giraffes. His character provides insight into the racial dynamics of the time and the kindness that transcends societal barriers.

  9. Moses: Big Papa’s eldest son, whose curiosity and wonder upon seeing the giraffes underscore the universal appeal and majesty of these creatures.

  10. Percival T. Bowles: A circus ringmaster and the embodiment of the darker side of human nature. His character represents exploitation and the ethical dilemmas surrounding animal rights.

  11. Cooter: An animal abuser owning a decrepit roadside animal attraction, Cooter serves as a stark contrast to the compassionate approach of Woody and Mr. Jones, further highlighting the theme of animal welfare.
West With Giraffes Summary

My 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.

Key Themes

1. The Journey of Self-Discovery and Growth

At its core, the novel is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story that follows young Woodrow Wilson Nickel’s transformation from a naive 17-year-old to a mature individual shaped by his experiences. 

Woodrow’s journey with the giraffes across America is not just a physical trek; it’s a metaphorical journey towards understanding himself and the world around him. 

As he navigates the challenging landscapes and confronts various societal issues of the 1930s, Woodrow learns about resilience, empathy, and the complexities of moral choices. 

This theme is an exploration of how experiences, both harrowing and uplifting, contribute to personal growth and self-awareness.

2. The Interplay between Humans and Nature

A prominent theme in the novel is the relationship between humans and animals, particularly the bond Woodrow forms with the giraffes. 

This connection goes beyond mere fascination; it represents a deeper understanding and respect for the natural world. The story also highlights the contrasting attitudes towards animals prevalent in the 1930s, from the exploitative practices of the circus owner Percival to Woodrow’s compassionate approach. 

Through these relationships, Rutledge delves into the concept of animal rights and the importance of viewing animals as beings worthy of human care and devotion, a view ahead of its time for the era in which the story is set.

3. The Impact of Historical Context on Individual Lives

Set against the backdrop of 1938 America, the book vividly portrays the historical context of the time – the aftermath of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the impending shadows of World War II. 

These events are not just a backdrop but actively shape the characters’ lives and decisions. 

For instance, the economic hardships influence Woodrow’s initial temptation by Percival’s offer, while the prevailing racial tensions are evident in his interactions with the segregated Black community. 

Rutledge skillfully uses these historical elements to enhance the narrative, showing how the broader socio-political landscape can deeply affect personal journeys and choices.

Final Thoughts

Published in 2021 and translated into 20 languages, “West with Giraffes” is a testament to hope, love, and the unbreakable bond between humans and animals. Lynda Rutledge masterfully weaves historical elements with a bildungsroman style, offering an immersive and moving tale that resonates with readers long after the last page is turned.