Lake Union Publishing
Hardcover (also available as an e-book, an audiobook, on audio CD, and in paperback), 978-1-5420-2174-6, 356 pgs., $24.95
February 1, 2021
“That’s your first story, but it doesn’t have to be your only story. That’s up to you.”
It is 1938 and the Dust Bowl and Great Depression have decimated the Texas Panhandle. Woodrow Wilson Nickel (yes, that’s his name), seventeen and newly orphaned, has one relative left in the world. Fleeing the dust that coats his lungs and a county sheriff, Nickel sets out for New York City, where he arrives at the harbor via hitching, hoboing, and a little thieving to arrive “eye to eye with more water than [his] thirsty eyes could take in.” His cousin begrudgingly puts him to work in a boathouse; a month later a monster hurricane tries to take out the Eastern Seaboard, which is when the giraffes show up, worse for wear.
Nickel’s cousin has died during the storm (impaled by a mast pole), so he’s out of work and homeless again. Mesmerized by the otherworldliness of the giraffes and their “brown-apple” eyes—you can see that, can’t you? —Nickel overhears the plan to drive the creatures cross country, all the way to the San Diego Zoo. California is “a word with more storybook meaning than giraffe for a Dust Bowl boy,” and Nickel concocts a plan to follow the truck. “How could anybody lose the way following a couple of giraffes?” Before long, Nickel is driving the truck, accompanied by the Old Man who is responsible for delivering the giraffes, and followed by a Packard inexpertly piloted by a redheaded photographer named Augusta (“Red”) who has her own dreams.
West with Giraffes is Austin writer Lynda Rutledge’s second novel, preceded by Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale, winner of a 2013 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award. While conducting research in the archives of the San Diego Zoo, Rutledge came across a trove of newspaper articles about two giraffes that had survived a hurricane on the deck of a freighter and a cross-country trip, from New York to California, in 1938. Inspiration struck, and the result is this charming and wondrous enchantment of a novel.
The tale is told through Nickel’s memoir as he writes it in the VA hosipital, in a race against time the avenger, the historical story unfolding in first-person narration, regularly interrupted by various nurses and orderlies doing their utmost to convince this cantankerous author-on-a-mission to rest, eat, or take a pill already; he is 105 years old. Even the foreshadowing of tragedy manages to be funny.
The plot unfolds fast and steady, with a surprise down every highway. The dialogue is simple, as related by a seventeen-year-old from the sticks, sometimes clever, sometimes sweet, always true. Nickel says of Augusta, “If Red’s heart was already broken, mine had barely been used . . . her face full of things I did not understand yet was desperate to remember.”
The prologue is from the future, the year 2025, which is one of the many whimsical touches in this endearing novel. A healthcare worker in a long-term VA care facility is tasked with gathering the deceased’s possessions from his room. She opens the old army footlocker, finding a porcelain giraffe souvenir from the San Diego Zoo and a stack of writing tablets. She glances at the first tablet and is immediately immersed, as are we. “Few true friends have I known and two were giraffes . . .”
West with Giraffes is a madcap scrape of a coming-of-age road trip, complete with stowaways, circuses, attempted giraffe-napping, biblical catastrophe, romance, shocking truths, brave sacrifices, and tragedy—in short, a grand adventure.
Lynda Rutledge, a lifelong animal lover, has had the joy of petting baby rhinos, snorkeling with endangered turtles, and strolling with a tower of giraffes in her eclectic, freelance career writing nonfiction for well-known publications and organizations, while winning awards and residencies for her fiction. Her debut novel, Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale, was the winner of the 2013 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award. It was adapted into the 2018 French film La dernière folie de Claire Darling starring Catherine Deneuve. Lynda, her husband, and their resident dog live outside Austin, Texas.