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West with Giraffes: Plot Summary

Lynda Rutledge’s West with Giraffes is a captivating novel that chronicles the remarkable journey of 17-year-old Woodrow Wilson Nickel as he drives two giraffes across the United States in 1938.

Through the protagonist’s first-person perspective, readers are immersed in a bildungsroman and historical fiction that highlights the transformative effects of the journey on the young man’s character. Rutledge skillfully weaves the historical context of 1938 into the story, providing a rich backdrop for Nickel’s personal growth.

The novel is an ode to animal rights, emphasizing the value of animals and their importance in human lives. Rutledge’s writing evokes a sense of adventure, inviting readers to join Nickel on his journey of self-discovery. The story also celebrates the resilience, hope, and love that can emerge from even the most challenging circumstances.

Published in 2021, “West with Giraffes” has gained global recognition, having been translated into 20 different languages. It is a testament to the power of storytelling and the enduring nature of memory.

West with Giraffes Summary

The year was 1938, and a colossal hurricane had struck New York, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Amidst the chaos, a young man named Woodrow had just arrived in the city, having left behind his home in the Dust Bowl, where a severe drought had left the land barren and unforgiving.

As he stood on the harbor, watching the devastation unfold, he noticed two majestic giraffes being unloaded from a ship. Woodrow was instantly captivated by the creatures and felt a strong connection to them, sensing that they were destined for something extraordinary.

Without hesitation, Woodrow decided to follow the giraffes on their journey to California, where he had heard that there were new opportunities to be found. He followed the giraffe rig through two states, watching in wonder as the towering animals gracefully strode through the landscape.

However, the journey was not without its challenges. The driver of the giraffe rig became spooked by a kick from one of the giraffes and ran away, leaving Woodrow alone with the majestic creatures. Undeterred, Woodrow convinced Riley Jones, the man in charge of the giraffes, to let him take over driving the rig.

As he continued on his journey with the giraffes, Woodrow’s thoughts were consumed with his growing affection for Augusta “Red” Lowe, a talented journalist from New York. Red had joined the journey to capture the essence of the giraffes’ voyage in a photo-essay, and Woodrow found himself drawn to her in ways he never expected. As they traveled together, their relationship deepened, and they found solace in each other’s company amidst the uncertainties of the road.

As Woodrow navigates his rig along treacherous mountain roads and small bridges, he faces a barrage of challenges that threaten the safety of both himself and his cargo. With constant traffic adding to the difficulty of the journey, Woodrow must maintain his focus and skill to make it through the hazards unscathed.

However, the challenges on the road are not the only difficulties Woodrow encounters on his journey. As he continues on his way, he becomes embroiled in a conflict that is characteristic of the time period in which he lives. The major conflict is between two individuals: Riley and Percival, the owner of a traveling circus.

Percival, an animal abuser, attempts to buy and steal the giraffes that Woodrow is transporting for his own financial gain. Due to the lack of animal rights laws and Percival’s financial monopoly, the only people who can fight off Percival are Woodrow and Riley. This sets the stage for a tense confrontation, with high stakes for all involved.

Despite the temptation of financial security that Percival offers, Woodrow ultimately chooses to risk his own future in order to protect the giraffes from abuse and exploitation. This decision is not an easy one, as Woodrow has suffered his own trauma in the past, but he knows that it is the right thing to do.

By standing up to Percival and protecting the animals under his care, Woodrow demonstrates courage and compassion, showing that even in difficult times, it is possible to do what is right.

As Woodrow journeys west with the giraffes, he is confronted with the harsh realities of the time period, including the oppressive racism that pervades society. When the rig’s tires blow out under a tight underpass, Woodrow and Riley are forced to seek assistance from a segregated Black community.

Initially, Woodrow harbors discriminatory attitudes towards Black people, but his perspective shifts when he meets the Jackson family. The Jacksons extend their hospitality to Woodrow and Riley, despite the racial tension and discrimination they face on a daily basis. Through their kindness and helpfulness, Woodrow comes to see the Jacksons as individuals, rather than as members of a racial group.

Woodrow and Riley’s relationship is put to the test when Woodrow makes the difficult decision to accept money from Percival, the animal abuser who attempted to steal the giraffes. This decision places a strain on their partnership, as Riley struggles to reconcile his loyalty to Woodrow with his disapproval of Woodrow’s actions.

Despite this tension, however, Riley ultimately forgives Woodrow, showing the depth of his capacity for empathy and forgiveness. Recognizing the importance of Woodrow’s connection to the giraffes, and understanding the challenges they have faced on their journey thus far, Riley chooses to keep Woodrow on for the remainder of the trip to California.

This decision is not without its own challenges, however. As they pass through the Panhandle, an area that holds traumatic memories for Woodrow, he is forced to confront his fears and anxieties. The law is looking for him, and the threat of arrest looms large. Nevertheless, Woodrow soldiers on, driven by his connection to the giraffes and his sense of duty to protect them.

As they move forward, they are shadowed by Red, who is determined to create a successful photoessay. However, Woodrow soon discovers that Red is being sought by the police for being a runaway wife and for stealing a vehicle.

Despite this, Red’s captivating and meaningful conversations with Woodrow continue to hold his attention, and he becomes inspired to do well by both Riley and the giraffes.

As they approach the Panhandle, Woodrow confronts his biggest fear, but before they face this challenge, he confides in Riley about a traumatic event from his past. Woodrow recounts an argument he had with his father over the killing of their horse, which led to a violent confrontation resulting in his father’s suicide.

Due to this event, Woodrow fears that the country sheriff is after him, and he also experiences overwhelming guilt over the loss of his family. However, Riley encourages Woodrow to let go of his guilt and embrace his future.

Through this emotional exchange, Woodrow realizes that he must confront his past in order to move forward. As they journey through the Panhandle, Woodrow finds the courage to face his fears, and he gradually sheds the weight of his guilt. Red’s persistent presence continues to push Woodrow towards success, and with Riley’s unwavering support, Woodrow discovers the strength to overcome his past and embrace his future.

As Woodrow, Riley, and the giraffes continue their journey, more conflicts emerge. In one instance, they find themselves in another fight with a man who is trying to obtain one of the giraffes. Meanwhile, Red discovers that she is pregnant, adding another layer of complexity to their already tumultuous journey.

To make matters worse, they encounter a flash flood in Texas that endangers their lives. Red acts heroically by sacrificing her car and belongings, including her cherished photographs, to save the rig from the flood. Despite her bravery, Red is left with no choice but to return to her husband.

Eventually, Woodrow and Riley reach their destination in San Diego, but Woodrow is consumed with the need to find Red before she heads back East. He sets out for Phoenix to search for her at the train station, but his plans are interrupted when the police stop him on suspicion of theft. They offer him a choice: join the army or go to prison.

After serving in World War II for seven years, Woodrow returns home and seeks out Red, only to discover that she has passed away shortly after giving birth to a daughter. Overwhelmed with grief, Woodrow finds solace in visiting the giraffes at the San Diego Zoo, where he learns that Riley has also passed away, but the giraffes continue to thrive.

In order to support himself, Woodrow takes a job as a grave digger, which allows him to spend his days with the giraffes. As time passes, Woodrow outlives all of his loved ones, but he remains committed to sharing Red’s story with her daughter. In his old age, he resolves to write down his memories of Red and her journey, in the hope that her daughter will one day read them.

When Woodrow eventually passes away, his written notes are discovered by a Veterans Affairs liaison, who recognizes their importance and sends them to Red’s daughter. Through Woodrow’s legacy, Red’s story lives on, and her daughter gains insight into the experiences of her mother and the people she encountered on her journey.