West with Giraffes seems, at first, like an engaging adventure story told by a very old man. Then it becomes something far more special, a forever story.
They were known as the ‘hurricane giraffes’. Lynda Rutledge lifted her story from the real life headlines that newspapers across the country carried when two young giraffes arrived in New York after surviving the Great Hurricane of 1938. Seventeen-year-old Woodrow Wilson Nickel, who barely survived the storm on a NYC wharf, first spots them being gently lifted off a transport ship that had limped in from Africa.
Woody’s last living relative, an old cuss he refers to only as Cuz, didn’t survive the hurricane. And we soon learn that he had only arrived in New York a few months earlier after burying his parents and baby sister on their Dust Bowl desolated farm in the Texas Panhandle.
Woody is enchanted by the young giraffes, feeling a kinship with them he hadn’t felt since his ma died. After finding ways to make himself useful to ‘the Old Man’ sent by the San Diego Zoo to haul them cross country, Woody ends up heading west as the driver of the specially rigged transport truck alongside the Old Man with the crippled hand.
Even before they leave NYC, Woody encounters a beautiful young redhead who seems as enamored as he is with the giraffes. Red claims to be a Life magazine photo journalist covering the story. Once she starts following the transport truck, they not only help each other and the Old Man out of one scrape after another, they begin to uncover each other’s secrets.
Enrapt as we become in the challenges and near-misses Woody and his friends face at every turn of the road, we don’t realize that we’re about to fall in love. We – along with Woody, Red, the Old Man and a dozen other colorful characters along the road – lose our hearts to ‘Boy and Wild Girl’, the only name Woody ever has, or ever needs, for the two tall, elegant creatures who renew his ravished sense of home.
As Rutledge says so beautifully through Red, “Home’s not the place you’re from, Woody. Home’s the place you want to be.”
At the age of one hundred and five, Woody writes his long ago story with fierce determination, willing his heart to keep ticking until he’s finished it. We know that Red was, as he says, the love of his life, at least for the first part of his long life. But, the night he had to say goodbye to Boy and Wild Girl was even more transformative than his first love.
Woody climbs down into the pen where the giraffes ride. On the nights when he’s stood guard over them, they’ve come to know his smell, nuzzling him, licking him and even laying their heads on his lap when he climbs up to the top of their enclosure. He’s standing there between them, rubbing their hides when they begin to hum together. “I could feel my chest vibrating with them, their rumbling African croon echoing deep into the night and deep into my marrow.”
Woodrow Wilson Nickel concludes, “If home, like Red said, was not where you came from but where you wanted to be, then the rig, the Old Man, and the giraffes were more home – and more family – than any home I’d ever had.”
Lynda Rutledge dedicates this story to the ongoing efforts around the world to save animals from the rampant extinction that is befalling this planet. West with Giraffes is just one among the millions of tales that underscore the profound relationship between man and animal, stories that show how we are at our best when we care for other living things.
We must do everything possible to save them, she says, in part, “for ourselves, since we now know there will be a human toll for losing even creatures as small as bees and butterflies.”
Dedication: My profound enjoyment of this book is the result of a very kind act. A few days after our pandemic-aware Christmas, my old friend Michael stopped by, masked up, with an unexpected gift. The last time we had seen them, he and his wife, Janice, had talked about how much they loved a book called ‘West with Giraffes’. Their thoughtful gift fit the book’s theme — it’s vitally important that we share the stories that matter.