Reading West with Giraffes for your book club will help you understand 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. Woody, the book’s narrator, has a great affinity for animals and this novel is really his coming of age story. Inspired by a true story, it’s one a heck of an adventure, featuring a road trip transporting two giraffes across the U.S. from New York to San Diego. The grand adventure is complete with stowaways, circuses, attempted giraffe-napping, biblical catastrophe, romance, shocking truths, sacrifices, and tragedy.
Amidst all this, the giraffes themselves represented peace since the characters managed to forget their hardships with them around. The book’s themes embrace hope, resilience, love, and the importance of remembrance and storytelling.
Our West with Giraffes book club questions and discussion guide will help your group approach some of the more problematic issues that were covered in the book such as animal cruelty and racism. Get discussion prompts, a synopsis and some selected reviews from which to start your conversation.
And if you loved the book, we also have suggestions for three books like West With Giraffes.
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West with Giraffes Synopsis
West With Giraffes, Lynda Rutledge
“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 deliver Southern California’s first giraffes to the San Diego Zoo. 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.
10 West with Giraffes Book Club Questions
These questions have been tailored to this book’s specific reading experience, but if you want more ideas, we also have an article with 101 generic book club questions.
- Woody went through a lot of injustices early in his life, how do you think his childhood shaped him into the person he became?
- We know this is based on a true story, do you think there was a good balance between historical fact and fiction throughout the read?
- Woodrow had never met a Black person before his journey across the country, how did his internalized racism change after the trip?
- How does the power of storytelling play into this novel? Did you like that Woody was writing his own story? And how did you respond when learning about the “you” that he was writing it for?
- “Time heals all wounds they say. I’m here to tell you that time can wound you all on its own.” What do you think he means by this statement?
- How did Woody mature under the Old Man’s guidance? What factors contributed to their bond?
- “It is a foolish man who thinks stories do not matter–when in the end, they may be all that matters and all the forever we’ll ever know.” Are there any moments and stories in your life that have mattered so much that you recall them often?
- Red has quite a bucket list–meet Margaret Bourke-White, Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Belle Benchley, touch a giraffe; see Africa, speak French, learn to drive, have a daughter, etc.
How did that list shape her as a character. Do you have a bucket list?
- Red is known for stealing, do you think your tolerance of lying and stealing would change in desperate times?
- What can we learn from Woody’s relationship with the giraffes and our own treatment of animals? San Diego Zoo is known as a world renowned zoo, but many people don’t like zoos. What is your position on them?
Selected Reviews of West with Giraffes
“I love this book. I love the story of animals leading humans to redemption, of mercy and joy found in unexpected places. This is a story of danger, of peace, of despising oneself and reaching outside oneself to heights of love once thought unreachable. I reserve 5-star ratings for books I feel are the best books I have ever read. This is one.”
“I liked the idea of this book until I started reading. What’s not to like about a historical tale partly grounded in truth about two giraffes’ journey across the country to their new zoo home? But the way the author chose to frame the story was both artificial and distancing.”
“I was surprised how hooked I got on this book. It’s a charming story about a cross country road trip between a young man, an old man, and two giraffes, and all the adventures they encounter along the way. Full of laughs, shocks, surprises and some tears, it was interesting and entertaining, with so many great, quirky side characters. Great read!”
“I would like to give it more stars in appreciation for the author’s intention and research. However, grading strictly on whether the book is a pleasure to read, I found parts of it annoying. Too many scenes were exaggerated and fuzzy in their description to the point that it was hard to make sense of them. The “rig” was ill described to the point that it didn’t make sense throughout the book.“
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3 Books Like West with Giraffes
If you are keen to read more fiction set during The Depression, check The Four Winds (noted below) and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.
Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
This book presents an historical fiction about a struggling circus traveling across the country during the Great Depression. The protagonist of the story is a veterinary student named Jacob, who is put in charge of the circus animals. He immediately takes interest in an elephant who seems untrainable but he finds a way to reach her while protecting her from an unruly handler. Water for Elephants is a wonderfully illustrated love story between two people, a veterinarian, a female equestrian performer, and an elephant named Rosie.
And if you love elephants, we have a whole article featuring books about them.
The Four Winds, Kristin Hannah
This captivating novel takes readers to the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains during the Depression-era. A family is faced with a difficult decision to stay in Texas during the drought or move to California. Elsa, a widowed woman risks it all to save her children and travel west. Even though it is a historical fiction, The Four Winds is a detailed depiction of the struggles and sacrifices people made for the American Dream during those harsh times.
Read it for book club and use our Four Winds discussion guide to get the convo going.
Remarkably Bright Creatures, Shelby Van Pelt
Seventy-year-old Tova Sullivan works the nightshift as a cleaner at Sowell Bay Aquarium. She was recently widowed and also still mourns the loss of her son, who disappeared in the Puget Sound. Tova doesn’t really need to work, but she like to keep busy and she prefers to share her time with those who don’t ask a lot of questions.
Enter Marcellus. He’s a giant octopus who was rescued by the aquarium. However, he believes himself to be a captive. He fancies himself a pretty bright octopus and he keeps stretching the bounds of his tank by occasionally escaping…and Tova keeps finding him. Over time, the two develop a very special bond.
This book is a top-rated pic for the Jenna Bush Hagar book club. Check out our full Jenna list for more ideas.
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Authored by Janelle Kennedy
Janelle is an avid reader who was born and raised in Las Vegas, NV. She enjoys reading and writing in her spare time. When not reading or writing, she’s working at a rural elementary school as an instructional aide, helping kids learn to read and write.