San Diego Zoo’s First Giraffes in 1938
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West with Giraffes is a work of historical fiction, set in 1938 as the Depression lingers and as Hitler is threatening Europe. It tells about two giraffes on their way to the San Diego Zoo where they will be the zoo’s first giraffes. Getting there is tough. It involves a trans-Atlantic crossing that concluded in the New York Harbor during the historic, Great New England Hurricane. After surviving that – and a quarantine station – they face a perilous twelve-day road trip from New York to San Diego. From city to city, reporters follow their journey as they bring joy to all who behold them at this difficult time of US history.
At the wheel of the truck transporting the giraffes is Woodrow Wilson Nickel. Woody is a seventeen-year-old who is himself a survivor of the Dust Bowl. After burying his mom, baby sister, and dad he sets off from the Texas panhandle to New York to find his sole surviving relative, Cuz. When Cuz dies in the hurricane, it seems like all is lost, that is until Woody spots and instantly finds an affinity with the giraffes. He says, “I knew all about animals. Some you worked, some you milked, some you ate, some you shot, and that was that…the worst two-legged human was better than any soulless four-legged animal – or so I was taught. Problem was, whenever I locked eyes with an animal I felt something more soulful than I ever felt from the humans I knew.”
As the driver, Woody is working for Riley Jones, the head zookeeper in San Diego. He, in turn, works for and reports to the world’s only female zoo director, Belle Benchley. Telegrams go back and forth between Riley and Belle. Riley always gives sunny reports of their progress even as readers just lived through harrowing times on the road. I should mention that Riley is as in love with the animals as is Woody. He calls them “the darlings.” And speaking of nicknames, Woody always refers to Riley as the Old Man.
Another main character in the story is “Red,” also known as Augie/Augusta. She is the beautiful redheaded wife of Lionel Abraham Lowe. She claims to be reporter for Life Magazine. She follows Woody and the Old Man on their westward journey in her green Packard snapping photos at all times.
And so, here is our story: the westward journey of these three people and two giraffes. The chapter titles follow their progress, “Across Maryland,” “To Washington DC,” “Over the Blue Ridge Mountains,” “Into Tennessee,” “Across Tennessee,” “Into Arkansas,” “Across Oklahoma,” “Across the Texas Panhandle,” “Into New Mexico,” “To Arizona,” and finally, “Into California.” Every chapter has its own misadventure. And when Woody goes back through the Texas Panhandle – a place he’d hoped never to see again – we learn all the stuff of his frequent nightmares as he tells the Old Man about what happened to his family during the Dust Bowl.
The author presents the story through the eyes of Woody when he is himself an old man. He is 105 years old, “a century and a nickel.” He is in a care facility bound and determined to get his story written before he dies. He starts his beautiful tale with the words, “Few true friends have I known and two were giraffes.” He seems to be addressing the story to some woman, but it takes until the end of the book to figure out who that might be.
For those wondering what portion of this historical fiction is true and what part is made up, the author tells us that the hurricane and quarantine center were real, as was the cross-country drive. The Riley Jones character was based on a man named Charley Smith who was the San Diego Zoo’s head keeper. Belle Benchley was real. Facts from 30+ newspaper clippings – which the author scatters throughout the book “almost verbatim,” – were also real. But, Woody and Red and all the people and misadventures they encountered along the way were all made up.
A final note:
Two months ago, I knew nothing about the Dust Bowl, then I read two novels about it almost back to back. The first was The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. And now, West with Giraffes has continued my education on the topic. Both were terrific books! I recommend them!