West with Giraffes is a historical fiction novel based on the true story of two giraffes transported all the way across the United States in the 1930s, as well as the unlikely duo who make the trip with them. This novel was voted as one of our readers’ favorite books, and made our own top book list as well. If you’re looking for a heartwarming book with lots to discuss, we highly recommend selecting this novel.
If you haven’t yet read the book, skip down to the Summary & Review sections at the bottom to read a synopsis of West with Giraffes. We’ve also included reviews from our readers to help you decide if it’s right for your book club. Other sections of this post do contain spoilers, as it is intended for those who have already finished reading the book.
What’s Included in this Book Club Discussion Guide: Online & Printable Versions
The post below includes everything you need to host or participate in a successful book club for West with Giraffes. From a character list and discussion questions to food and cocktail ideas, we’ll help you host a wonderful gathering.
We also have an optional printable West with Giraffes book club kit to take your meeting to the next level. The fully customized, printable version of the book club discussion guide includes the following pages:
- A Character List
- Book Club Discussion Questions
- Quotes from the Book
- Icebreaker Ideas & Games Themed to the Book (with a printable game page)
- Printable Bookmarks for All Your Members
- 4 Pages of Bonus Contextual Information, including giraffe trivia, historical context, and information about giraffe conservation work
- Themed Food & Drink Menu Ideas
- Various Book Covers from Around the World
- Custom-designed Journal Page to Record Book Club Meeting Details
- Themed Notes Page
- A List of Additional Book Club Resources
No pressure to purchase, you’re always welcome to use any of the resources below for free! Etsy purchases do help The Book Girls to keep doing what we do!
West with Giraffes Characters
These are the key characters that bring West with Giraffes to life. Keep this list handy as a quick reference during your discussions — it’ll help keep track of who’s who as you delve into conversations. Our printable guide includes a one-page character list if you find it easier to have a printed reference.
- Woodrow Wilson (“Woody”) Nickel – A 105-year-old man (in 2025) retelling the story of his cross-country adventure back in 1938 when, at the age of 17, he helped Riley Jones transport two giraffes from coast to coast
- Mr. Riley Jones (“The Old Man”) – The rough and tumble head keeper from the San Diego Zoo tasked with the job of safely transporting two giraffes from New York to California. According to the Author’s Notes, this character was loosely based on Charley Smith, the real San Diego Zoo keeper who transported the giraffes in 1938.
- Belle Benchley – The real-life director of the San Diego Zoo from 1927-1953 (the world’s first female zoo director) who directed the giraffes to be transported across the country.
- Wild Girl & Wild Boy – Two giraffes from Uganda who survived a hurricane en route to the U.S. and were then transported across the country by Woody and Mr. Jones, bound for the San Diego Zoo.
- Earl – The original driver of the giraffe rig who quit on the first night after they arrived in Maryland.
- Augusta Lowe (“Red”) – A beautiful aspiring photojournalist who begins tailing the giraffe rig. She claims to be assigned by Life Magazine to document the giraffes’ journey.
- Lionel Abraham Lowe (“Mr. Big Reporter”) – Red’s husband
- Augie Ann – Red’s daughter
- Mr. Jackson (aka Big Papa) – Owner of the Cottages for Coloreds in Tennessee.
- Moses – Big Papa’s son who spots the giraffes when the trailer gets stuck under an overpass.
- Percival T. Bowles – The cruel circus ringmaster who wants to buy the giraffes.
- Cooter – The owner of an abusive roadside animal attraction who wants one of the giraffes.
We hope this character list is a helpful reference as you prepare to discuss the book.
West with Giraffes Book Club Questions
In addition to the book club questions for West with Giraffes, we have a resource of 50 book club questions that work for any book. That post also provides tips for creating your own book club questions.
Read through these West with Giraffes discussion questions before your meeting and select your favorites so you can prioritize them. Most clubs won’t have time for every question, so start with those that you are most excited to discuss.
- As a work of historical fiction, author Lynda Rutledge started with the true story of two giraffes being transported cross-country and then imagined what that road trip might have been like. Do you feel like the real newspaper clippings that were included throughout the book added authenticity to the story?
- Who did you think was the “you” that Woody was addressing as he wrote in his notebooks? How did you feel when you found out? How do you think “you” reacted after receiving the notebooks?
- Why do you think Riley Jones agreed to give Woody a chance at the beginning of the story? Why did he continue to give him second chances?
- Woody says that he’s had few true friends, but that Wild Boy and Wild Girl were two of them. Do you think that humans and animals are capable of true friendship? Have you experienced this level of friendship with an animal?
- Discuss the racial issues in the book. How did Woody’s perspective change after meeting the Jackson family?
- Were there any specific events in the story that changed your opinion of Woody, Riley Jones, or Red?
- There are many things we don’t know about the Old Man’s past. Why do you think the author didn’t provide more about his back story? If you could ask him one question about his past, what would you most want to know?
- Red had a “Things I’m Doing Before I Die” list that included four famous women that she wanted to meet. How did this list shape her as a character? Do you have a bucket list, and if so, what’s on it?
- If you’ve read Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen, how did that novel affect the way you felt about Percival T. Bowles and the circus train that Woody and Mr. Jones encountered along the way?
- Were you surprised by how the story ended? How did you want it to end?
- How would this story have been different if it had only been told from the 1938 perspective? Discuss the storytelling technique of having Woody writing his story down many years later.
- Woody says, “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, and do you agree?
- Reviewers seem mixed on how to categorize this book. Did you find it to be a light or a heavy read? What elements of the story made you feel that way?
- If you’ve read other books set in the United States in the 1930s, how did this book compare? Did you learn anything new about the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, or other events of the time period by reading this book?
- Discuss how the role of zoos and their treatment of animals has changed over the past century.
- Would you read a prequel about Wild Girl and Wild Boy’s Transatlantic journey through the hurricane before arriving in the USA? (To be clear, there’s no prequel in the works that we are aware of.)
- We all know the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but let’s be honest – many of us do. What was your first impression of this book based on the cover? Take a look at the alternate covers from different countries and discuss how your first impression might have been different and which cover you think best represents the book.
- West with Giraffes has been translated into 20 different languages and read and enjoyed around the world. How do you think your reading of this book would be different if you weren’t familiar with the geography of the United States?
West with Giraffes Book Club Food Ideas
In honor of Mr. Jones and Woody’s cross-country roadtrip, we recommend a roadside diner theme.
Throughout the book, Wild Boy and Wild Girl enjoy raw onions as a tasty treat. While a giraffe’s primary diet is leaves and grasses, we did some research and discovered that they are fond of all kinds of vegetables, including onions. With that in mind, we recommend serving an appetizer that features onions.
Onion rings would be a great option that stays true to the diner theme. Mr. Jones enjoyed a few beers at their various stops, so we think he’d approve of this beer-battered onion ring recipe from our friend over at Savory Experiments!
Main Course Options
Specific diner foods mentioned in the book include hamburgers and meat pies with potatoes. There are lots of variations on a meat pie, but we love this Shepherd’s Pie recipe because it’s easy to serve to a group and the potato topping makes it feel like the ultimate comfort food!
Alternatively, for a more elevated nod to a 1930s meat pie, you could make a chicken pot pie casserole as your main course.
On their way to Washington D.C., Woody and Mr. Jones enjoy a slice of coconut cake for dessert at their evening stop. This coconut pound cake recipe is sure to please your crowd, and can be served warm or enjoyed cold. Another great dessert option would be a diner classic – a fruit pie.
West with Giraffes Book Club Beverage Ideas
Woody mentions various billboards that they pass as they drive along the Lee Highway, including advertisements for Dr. Pepper and RC Cola. Serve these in their nostalgic glass bottles if you want a more authentic feel.
Woody also enjoys a sarsaparilla at one of their stops. While you aren’t likely to find this on your local grocery store shelf, you can still purchase it online if your book club would enjoy trying it.
Coffee (of Coffee Cocktails)
What’s a diner meal without a cup of coffee? Keep it simple and serve it with cream and sugar, or make this a sweet and comforting coffee cocktail recipe with Bailey’s Irish Cream.
Wine wasn’t nearly as popular in the 1930s as it is today, but of course we couldn’t make book club menu recommendations and leave out the wine.
We searched high and low for a wine option that had a giraffe on the label. We found quite a few brands that we were very excited about (like Tall Horse, Long Neck, Laughing Giraffe, and Bodegas Albero Camelopard, to name a few), but unfortunately none of them seem to be currently available for purchase in the U.S.
However, the old-fashioned pick-up trucks on the labels of Martin’s Pick Up Wine have perfect road-trip vibes. If you really want to get creative, use stickers to add a couple of giraffes and see which book club member is the first to notice!
West with Giraffes Book Club Decor Ideas
Setting the Table
Some books lend themselves to themed decor better than others, and this one sure makes it easy! We found some simple but sophisticated options on Amazon that could help you dress your table with a nod to the book’s largest characters, including these giraffe paper goods. Or use your own plates, but dress up the place settings with these cute giraffe napkins. These giraffe bamboo appetizer forks are just so cute!
Simple Centerpiece Suggestion
Bring the book to life in the center of your dining table, or on your food buffet using a Vintage-style toy truck and adding toy giraffe figurines in the bed of the truck. If you have kids or grandkids in your life, you can probably pull this one together without needing to purchase anything new.
Make a Big Statement
If you want to really wow your book club, you could splurge on this giant giraffe cardboard cutout to greet your guests. Investing in this giant cutout might make sense if you could use it again for another event, like a kid’s birthday party, or if you know a local youth theater company that might be able to reuse it as a set piece.
Another fun idea is to purchase a laminated, vintage style US map to display during your book club discussion. This could be used to reference the locations as you discuss specific events in the book, or you could use a dry erase marker to trace the route traveled along the Lee Highway (or even the routes of your favorite roadtrips).
Quotes from West with Giraffes
The following are some of the best quotes from West with Giraffes. All would make great talking points as part of a book club discussion. Be sure to bring any quotes you highlighted along the way as well.
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France, Nobel Laureate, 1921 (quoted in the epilogue)
“Animals are complete all on their own, living by voices we don’t get to hear, having a knowing far beyond our paltry ken.”
“Animals can tear your heart out. They can maim you. They can kill you dead on instinct alone and saunter into the next minute like it was nothing. But at least you know the ground rules with animals. You can count the cost of breaking the rules. You never know with people. Even the good can hurt you bad, and the bad, well, they’re going to hurt you but good.”
“It’s a strange thing how you can spend years with some folks and never know them, yet, with others, you only need a handful of days to know them far beyond years.”
“Time heals all wounds they say. I’m here to tell you that time can wound you all on its own.”
“The land you grow up in is a forever thing, remembered when all else is forgotten, whether it did you right or did you wrong.”
“Home’s not the place you’re from, Woody. Home’s the place you want to be.”
“You can carry around a heavy load only for so long, though, before you’ve got to set it down,”
“In a long life, there is a singular moment when you know you’ve made more memories than any new ones you’ll ever make.”
“It is a foolish man who thinks stories do not matter — when in the end, they may be all that matter and all the forever we’ll ever know.”
“The thing about knowing you’re doing something for the last time is that it takes the joy right out of it.”
Lynda Rutledge Biography
Lynda Rutledge holds a BA and an MA in American Literature, and an MFA in creative writing. She has worked as a professional writer for over 25 years, including as a copywriter, a restaurant and film reviewer, a travel writer, and a freelance journalist. Her travel photography often appears alongside her writing.
Her work has taken her on many adventures, from petting baby rhinos to snorkeling with sea turtles, and from hang-gliding off of a Swiss mountain to dodging hurricanes.
She has also written book-length nonfiction for famous organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the San Diego Zoo Global. It was her research for the latter that inspired her novel, West with Giraffes.
Can I get a printable version of the book club guide?
Yes! We have a printable version in our shop that comes with bonus goodies, like a cute printable bookmark, which illustrates the route they traveled with the giraffes in the book.
Is there a West with Giraffes audiobook?
Yes! The audiobook of West with Giraffes is narrated by Danny Campbell. You might recognize his voice from the audio recording of Killers of the Flower Moon.
Audible listeners rate the audiobook performance 4.6 out of 5 stars. We enjoyed the audio so much that we added it to our list of audiobooks that are perfect for road trips. Of course, as with all audiobooks, some people enjoy the narration more than others. We always recommend listening to a sample of the audiobook before committing to reading this format.
Both the ebook and audiobook versions of West with Giraffes are currently available with Kindle Unlimited as of 8/29/23.
Is there a West with Giraffes movie?
While we’d love to see West with Giraffes on the big screen, as of August 2023, there is no public information about an adaptation.
However, we can recommend some excellent viewing for those who want to further explore the topics in this novel. First, we’ve heard great things about the two-part Ken Burns Dust Bowl documentary, which is available for streaming as of 8/24/23.
Second, if you are interested in learning more about how modern-day zoos transport and care for giraffes, we highly recommend watching season 3, episode 11 of the Animal Planet documentary series called The Zoo. This series takes you behind the scenes at the Bronx Zoo, and in the episode called “Giraffe in the City” a three-year old giraffe named Mashengo is carefully transported from the Indianapolis Zoo to the Bronx Zoo as part of a species survival breeding program.
Season 5, episode 5 of The Zoo also focuses on giraffes and discusses the importance of AZA breeding programs and how they relate to the overall worldwide giraffe population. Bronx Zoo Director Jim Breheny, who also serves as the Executive Vice President of Zoos and Aquarium for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), explains, “It’s not enough to keep animals and exhibits just for people to look at. There has to be a higher purpose, and for us it’s conservation of species in the wild.”
What are some other books like West with Giraffes?
When we read West with Giraffes, the first book that immediately came to our mind was Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. Set in 1932, the novel is set aboard a circus train like the one Woody and Mr. Jones encounter. And like West with Giraffes, Water for Elephants is also told from the perspective of an elderly man reflecting back on the adventures of his youth.
In Water for Elephants, a young Jacob Jankowski jumps onto a passing train and suddenly finds himself thrust into the world of a circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression. Because Jacob is just shy of his veterinary degree, he’s put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. He becomes enamored with Marlena – the star of the equestrian show. But Marlena is married to the circus’s cruel animal trainer. Jacob also meets Rosie, an elephant that everyone had hoped would help save the circus, but who appears to be untrainable.
The Lincoln Highway was the earliest automobile transcontinental highway in the US. Running through the northern states, the Lincoln Highway was completed in 1913. The Lee Highway was completed a decade later in 1923, running through the southern states. In West with Giraffes, Woody and Mr. Jones travel cross-country along the Lee Highway. If you enjoyed the journey aspect of this novel, we also recommend that you read Amor Towles’ 2021 novel, The Lincoln Highway.
This novel takes place entirely within 10 days in 1954. Eighteen-year-old Emmett has finished his term on a work farm, where he was sent after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The warden drives him home to Nebraska, where he plans to pick up his 8-year-old brother before heading west for a fresh start. However, Emmett discovers that two friends, Duchess and Wooly, from the work camp have stowed away in the trunk. The three teens and 8-year-old Billy adjust their plans and set out across the country together.
For even more books about cross-country adventures, we have a full list of journey books set throughout the United States at various points in history.
As Woody and Mr. Jones make their way west, they visit Woody’s Dust-Bowl ravaged hometown. If you are interested in reading more about this time period in history, we recommend Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds. Additionally, we have a full list of highly-rated, unforgettable Dust Bowl books.
Along their journey, Woody and Mr. Jones encounter Red, a female photographer looking for a big scoop. Red’s character reminds us of the stories of Dorothea Lange, a real female photographer who risked everything in the 1930s to document the horrific conditions of the country’s poor in order to tell the story of a struggling nation. You can read about Dorothea in the historical fiction novel, Learning to See by Elise Hooper.
Are there other books by Lynda Rutledge?
Lynda Rutledge published her debut novel, Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale, in 2013. Faith Bass is the richest old lady in Bass, Texas, and a recluse of 20 years. But on the last day of the millennium, she decides to have a garage sale. She drags all of her belongings onto the front lawn of her mansion, including her priceless Louis XV elephant closet and her Tiffany lamps. The sale attracts not only the townspeople, but also Faith’s long-lost daughter. This novel was adapted into a major French film titled “La Dernière Folie de Claire Darling” and starring Catherine Deneuve.
Lynda Rutledge also has an upcoming novel titled Mockingbird Summer that is anticipated to be published on January 30, 2024. It is described as a literary coming-of-age novel, but no other details are available yet. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this one and will share more information soon.
West with Giraffes Summary
West with Giraffes is a charming tale of adventure that takes you on the ride of a lifetime from the East Coast of the U.S. to the west, alongside a rowdy 17-year-old, a grumpy older man, and two giraffes.
The year is 1938 and no American zoo has successfully housed giraffes before, but the female zoo director of San Diego Zoo believes she can do it. The giraffes have just survived a hurricane en route to the East Coast, and Riley Jones, the zoo’s curmudgeonly head keeper has been charged with safely transporting the giraffes from New York to San Diego.
America is still in the throes of the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl conditions continue to ravage the drought-stricken Southern Plains states. A coast-to-coast trek with giant animals is no easy feat. Jones begrudgingly teams up with a starving teenager named Woody to help him make the journey.
The adventures along the way include run-ins with circus con artists, being tailed by a female photographer looking for a big scoop, an emotional visit to Woody’s hometown, and so much more.
At its heart (and this book is filled with LOTS of heart) this is a coming of age story. Now, at the age of 105, Woody recounts his 12-day cross-country trip with Jones and the giraffes and how it shaped his life.
West with Giraffes Review
If you found this post searching for potential book club picks, we thought it would be helpful to share why we think it’s an ideal selection for discussion.
West with Giraffes was a five-star read for both of the Book Girls and made our list of the Best Books of 2021. It is also extremely popular with our readers, making our Readers’ Favorites list for the same year, and being a perennial favorite pick for the Books Set in the 1930s prompt of our Decades Reading Challenge.
As of August 2023, West with Giraffes has an average rating of 4.4 on Goodreads with nearly 97,000 readers. Book Girls’ readers rate this book ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ and 100% would recommend it to a friend.
The Book Girls Say… We adore everything about this story, from the insights it gives to life across America in the late 1930s to the growing relationships between characters, including the humans and the giraffes. We can’t recommend this book highly enough!
In Our Readers’ Words…
Our readers voted this book one of their favorites of 2021! They shared some great quotes about why they loved it.
I could not put it down and I love giraffes. Just the whole idea of going cross country with two giraffes in a truck and all the people you meet along the way. Fascinating! – Judith S.
Great adventure story. Well written. – Sarah W.
A road trip, coming-of-age and also an orphan, a crabby old man, and ….. giraffes! What’s not to like? – Weezie F.
We hope you found our book club guide helpful!
As a reminder, you can get the guide in a print-friendly format for your book club meeting in our Etsy shop! Each purchase helps us continue providing great book lists and book resources here.
Additional Book Club Guides
If you’re planning ahead to your next book club pick, consider selecting another book from our list of guides to make your meeting preparation easy and fun!
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- How to Start a Book Club
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