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West with Giraffes

An emotional, rousing novel inspired by the incredible true story

of two giraffes who made headlines

and won the hearts of Depression-era America.


"Few true friends have I known and two were giraffes…"

Woodrow Wilson Nickel, age 105, feels his life ebbing away. But when he learns giraffes are going extinct, he finds himself recalling the unforgettable experience he cannot take to his grave....It's 1938....The Great Depression lingers. Hitler is threatening Europe, and world-weary Americans long for wonder. They find it in two giraffes who miraculously survive a hurricane while crossing the Atlantic. What follows is a twelve-day road trip in a custom truck to become Southern California's first giraffes. Behind the wheel is the young Dust Bowl rowdy Woodrow. Inspired by true events, the tale weaves real-life figures with fictional ones, including the world's first female zoo director, a crusty old man with a past, a young female photographer with a secret, and assorted reprobates as spotty as the giraffes.

Part adventure, part historical saga, and part coming-of-age love story, West with Giraffes explores what it means to be changed by the grace of animals, the kindness of strangers, the passing of time, and a story told before it's too late.

(Available in Hardback, Paperback, Audio, and Kindle E-Book)

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West with Giraffes


It started with a stack of yellowed newsclippings, a very old map, and a white board to fill up.

Over a year, it turned into this calculated mess.

Until, one day, I finally began to write:





     In 1999, I was doing deep dives into the San Diego Zoo's archives for a project when I stumbled on a batch of yellowed newsclippings chronicling the kind of story that captures the imagination and never quite lets go. A place as colorful as the San Diego Zoo has stories galore, but the scope and audacity of this one was remarkable:

     In September 1938, on the orders of the Zoo's famous female zoo director Belle Benchley, two giraffes survived a hurricane at sea to be driven cross-country in little more than a tricked-out pickup truck. Over 500 newspapers carried the story day after day as the giraffes saw the U.S.A. from their sky-high windows to become the first giraffes in Southern California.

     As I read those old clippings, I kept seeing a bored little farm girl staring out her window when suddenly two giraffes whiz by. Finding a telegram from Lloyds of London insuring them for "tornados, floods, and blowouts," I was hooked all the more. I searched for some sort of trip diary by the keeper who managed the feat, a man named Charley Smith. But like most rough-and-tumble zoo men of the time, he wasn't the kind of guy who wrote in diaries.

     So that was that.

    A few years ago, I once again found myself thinking about those giraffes––but for a disturbing reason­­. Giraffes along with so many other species are now threatened in what is called "the Sixth Extinction" which is about as scary-sounding a name as it should be. As I mulled over the future survival of some of the world's most iconic animals, I was back in 1938 with two young giraffes surviving a hurricane and traveling the winding roads of America seeing things in my mind's eye no one will ever see again––imagining how those giraffes surely made the people they met more human. Maybe that's what really had me. I wanted to spend time thinking about why other creatures of our world, both wild and tame, can move us so. Belle Benchley's memoir Life in a Man-Made Jungle being an international bestseller during one of the worst eras of the 20th century proves that connection. There's more going on than the "circle of life": Hitler was threatening, the Great Depression was still going, yet two traveling giraffes lightened the load of an entire country.

     The challenge of creating historical fiction inspired by a true story is to research enough to capture what life was like when such a crazy idea seemed feasible. At the same time, the story  is always a reflection of the present since that is where it's being read. We have big, big things to worry about in this new century, extinctions of beloved animals among the most heartbreaking. But there's good news: All over the world, conservation organizations, research centers, aquariums, foundations and zoological institutions like today's San Diego Zoo Global [recently rebranded as San Diego Wildlife Alliance] are fighting the good fight for endangered species––and for ourselves, since we now know there will be a human toll for losing even creatures as small as bees and butterflies.

     In the decades ahead, when/if someone finds this novel on a family bookshelf or in the stacks of a library, God forbid the world's a place without elephants, pandas, tigers, rhinos, butterflies–and giraffes. A noted conservation writer once posited how we feel about an animal dramatically influences its future survival, that imagination has become an ecological force: Storytelling matters, emotion matters. May it be so.

     For now, we may not have the chance to ride cross-country with a pair of giraffes, falling in love with them and each other while learning secrets to life, but we can still meet and be charmed by them. They are still with us. And here's hoping that will never, ever change. #



A few of the THOUSANDS of reader reviews:


"It's not often I have to sit in silence and recover when I finish a book, but I needed to after this one. It's gripping, moving, and so incredibly touching. The tone is so well-crafted, the dialog so realistic. An utterly beautiful novel."..


"A boy running from his mystery past, two giraffes, a gruff old zoo keeper, a red headed photographer and an adventure so extraordinary it has given me goosebumps…"


"West with Giraffes, along with Water for Elephants, The Last Bus to Wisdom, News of the World and Where the Crawdads Sing are the kind of books that the reader wants to devour in a day...only to immediately turn back to the beginning to savor each page...."


"This is a book unlike any I have ever read…There is black humor, heartbreak, and hope all balled up into a crazy road trip and a story that spans 100 years that will touch heart and soul…"


"Read this book. Now. Don't wait. I had every emotion through the course of reading this book. I loved the giraffes, the characters, the story, the writing. Oh, the writing!"


"It had me both laughing and crying. I was sad when the book ended but my heart was full."


"Rutledge brought to life a remarkable story that few know about, and tells it so beautifully as a plea for the preservation of the Earth's most exotic creatures…"


"Ms. Rutledge has spun a masterpiece…. Reading it was like falling into another world."


"I was profoundly moved by West with Giraffes. The writer is a master story-teller, a beautiful story about why stories are written and remembered."


"The author manages to wrap a travelogue, a historical novel, a social and political commentary, a coming of age story, and a love story together in one book."


"I've read some truly wonderful books in my life, but never one I'm convinced will stay with me forever as will West with Giraffes.  This is a book that I read with my heart as well as my eyes, every page a joy…"


"There is so much history in West with Giraffe's travels including artfully-woven reminders of the tragic Dust Bowl and the many struggles and prejudices African Americans endured…"


"Publishers actually seem to encourage writing books that are like some other books: "Reminiscent of _________, for fans of ________". It is rare to pick up a book that is really DIFFERENT."


"A journey through a world both intimately familiar and lost in the dust of the past. On the surface a road trip coming of age novel, but down deep an aching meditation on loss, time, and hope..."