My thanks to NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for a review e-copy of this one.
West with Giraffes is an endearing, and also heart-rending piece of historical fiction. The story is set around a truly extraordinary real life occurrence that took place in 1938. Two giraffes (later to be called Lofty and Patches) travelled to New York surviving a hurricane at sea. Then they made another journey, a road trip of over 3,000 miles to San Diego Zoo (then under the first female zoo director Belle Benchley), which became their home for the next nearly 30 years.
The story is narrated by Woodrow Wilson Nickel, a fictional character. When the story opens, he is 105, and being the age he is, he wishes to write of the experience of a lifetime, one he had when he was only 17, so that it does not get lost. Woody Nickel, at that young age has survived near poverty in the dust bowl where all his family lie dead, and after an arduous journey to his cousin in New York, must face the devastating hurricane of 1938. Barely surviving this, he comes across the two giraffes being unloaded from the ship the travelled on. They too have survived. Woody (who has a deep feeling for animals) feels an instant connect with them, and decides to follow them on their journey to San Diego, for ‘Californy’ he is sure is a land of opportunity. Circumstances become such that some way down the road, Woody finds himself driving the giraffes with zookeeper Riley Jones (‘Old Man’). Along the way, they keep running into Augusta Red, a reporter documenting the giraffes’ journey in pictures, whom Woody takes to immediately.
The journey is an eventful one with plenty of bumps in the road, and they meet both kind-hearted people and some with rather nefarious plans. Alongside, we also learn the stories of the people we are travelling with—secrets, ambitions, fights for survival. Our characters must also face up to their pasts, but in the company of these graceful animals, this becomes somewhat easier as they experience a comfort like no other.
Like another reviewer has said, I did find myself a little confused at the beginning for from my reading of the description of the story, I somehow was under the impression that Woody was 105 when the events took place, and the story seemed to open in the future. But once I had gotten my head around how it was structured, it began to make more sense and I really began to enjoy it. The journey itself is a great deal of fun, and like all enjoyable roadtrip tales, we meet an assortment of characters, and also witness life in those times, the prejudices that people had and hardships they lived under. Woody’s own life too, we learn about as we go along—reading about life that people in the dust bowl had, what they had to face day after day, with little hope of escape or anything different is truly heart-wrenching, as is the discrimination and prejudices that were far stronger in the period—against women, and people of colour. Measuring what we consider hard alongside this, one realises how minor our own problems feel.
Amidst all this, the giraffes themselves represent peace, for with them, our characters manage to forget their hardships, even perhaps what lies ahead and experience true feeling. They are truly connected with the earth, with life, and our characters feel that with them, as to an extent do we. I loved the sentiment that author keeps at the centre of her story—that of all life having value, human or animal and needing to be respected for that reason. Her love for animals shines through in her characters, and me as an animal lover felt that with them, and also cheered when some of the less savoury characters got their just desserts. I also loved the incorporation of the giraffes’ humming and love of onions, both of which I didn’t know about. In fact, reading about this, I ended up googling giraffe sounds because I honestly hadn’t even considered the sound they make/their call before this.
This was a really lovely and emotion-filled story, a great combination of history, fiction and love for animals, which I enjoyed very much; the only things that I didn’t like were the confusion at the start (a minor complaint) and the fact that at some moments, things felt a little too dramatic. But other than that an excellent tale–4.5 stars!
A couple of lines that I liked;
‘Whenever I locked eyes with an animal, I felt something more soulful than I felt from the humans I knew…’
Life is life, no matter who or what is living it…a thing to respect’.
Find Lofty and Patches’ story at San Diego Zoo here
A picture of them being loaded on to the truck here