West with Giraffes

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In the beginning, the sentences are complex and sometimes I had to reread them two or three times to figure out who the subject was.  Perhaps this is done to provide a sense of the confused state that Woodrow often finds himself in due to his advanced age.   The further I got in the book, the less it became a problem.

Woodrow Wilson Nickel was orphaned at 17 in the Texas Panhandle during the Dust Bowl, which I understood rather well because we've read Kristen Hannah's "The Four Winds".  There are also little nuggets of reality woven seamlessly into the narrative, such as the point about crossing state lines as (in the northeastern U.S.) as often as people in Texas cross counties. (ref. Ch. 3, Pg. 51)

In the beginning there was a comedic theme that kept running through the early pages, because Woodrow lost his suspenders in the hurricane, so every now and then there was a reference to him holding up his pants.  FUN FACT - Woody has the same birthday as my youngest son (well, not the year).

Also, you might want to pay attention to the italicized dream chorus Woody hears from time to time.  I didn't realize until the beginning of Chapter 12 that they changed.  

On a scale of 1 - 5

Sex:  0

Religion:  4

Gruesome:  1

Suspense:  3

Morality:  4

Traditional: 5

Sex - a young boy is attracted to a girl but there's barely any flirting and only a kiss or two

Religion - "despite my God-fearing ma, ... leaving little room for the Holy Spirit to breathe on me." and "Cussing...my ma's precious Jesus and his cruel God Almighty Father" (Pg. 7) and several other similar references to the faith of his mother.  An allusion to "milk and honey, Moses and the Chosen People, Promised Land". (Pg. 14) Superstition about a lucky rabbit's foot. (Pg. 20)  Reference to a spiritual gift of second sight. (Ch. 2, Pg. 36) Old Man muttered "Jesus-Joseph-Mary" when he was exasperated. (Ch. 3, Pg. 59)   In the beginning of Ch. 4, Woody contrasts luck and God's favor. "gotdam" (Ch. 4, Pg. 78)  A discussion about why God created animals. (Ch. 4, Pg. 85)  Contrasts of birthmarks being either lucky or the mark of the devil. (Pg. 92) "feeling God Almighty and the Heavenly Host again on my side" (Ch. 6, Pg. 109)  "Towering creatures of God's pure Eden" (Ch. 8)

Gruesome - "a sloop's mast stuck straight through him" (Pg. 6) plus minor references to hurricane aftermath

Suspense - Why was the Old Man worried about avoiding the circus? (Ch. 4, Pg. 88-89)  What is Woody risking if the Lee Highway goes through the PanHandle? (Ch. 6, Pg. 109) End Ch. 8, foreshadowing that Woody had done something "rotten" that he had needed to make right.  Would Woody fall for the circus master's trick and what would be the result.  A flash flood created high tension even though there was still quite a bit of book left so I had a good feeling they'd survive.

Morality - theft, or was it just doing what had to be done for survival. When the vehicle hit a dog they stopped to aid in the death, which was contrasted with a memory of Woody's dad hitting an animal and saying they shoot a coyote because it's a coyote but not to waste a bullet on a dog. (Pg. 52)  Old Man said it was wrong to think an animal life worth less than a human. "Life is life." (Ch. 4, Pg. 78)  Old Man philosophizes about not killing for sport. (Ch. 4, Pg. 87) In Chapter 8 there are some references to "coloreds".  They are not meant to sound inciteful or derogatory, just indicative of the time period.

Traditional - Woody tells the reader he is a virgin and that he wants to put the moves on Red but knows it's not what she needs so he was selfless. (Pg. 302)

I always begin a book by reading the cover jacket.  As I read the back of this book, I already had a question about why his face is "newly scarred before the hurricane-wallop".  More questions soon followed, such as, who is the "you" that Woodrow writes to on the pad found by the VA liaison in the Prologue.  In the second part of the Prologue, Woodrow refers to having had "so many wives" which led me to wonder how many.  Soon I added another question - why was Woodrow afraid of the law in his hometown?  Happily, all but the wives question are answered by the end of the book. 

Reality Check: The giraffes stay in the truck all day and night so they must be using the restroom there as well.  Old Man and Woody give them food and water, but never mention changing the hay.  Imagine the smell - yet Woody never complains about the giraffes, only looks at them with wonder.  (Talk about rose-colored glasses.)

Discussion Questions

On page 8 we learn that Woodrow was taught that animals had purposes and were not to be one's pet, yet Woodrow ways, "Whenever I locked eyes with an animal I felt something more soulful than I ever felt from the humans I knew."  One of the opening quotes: Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened." - Anatole France
Do you agree?  How different is loving your first animal from loving your first child?    

The memory Woodrow can always recall is the giraffes.  What memory do you think / hope you will have "always alive, always within reach" at your end of life. (Pg. 4)  Woody held on to memories of the giraffes and drive when he experienced tough times.  What memory do you hold onto?

Townsfolk were excited to see the giraffes pass by on the road.  Have you ever seen something significant pass by?

Have you ever had a harrowing drive like Woody did through the Blue Ridge mountains? (Ch. 7)

What did you think caused the flash that scared the bear away? (Ch. 7, Pg. 127) Were you surprised at what it really was?

Do you have a story you need to tell someone? (end Ch. 7, Pg. 134)  What's your plan to make sure it gets told?

Was the giraffe that Woody kept seeing outside his window, waiting to take him to Heaven?

Did the Old Man reveal that he'd killed someone with an elephant hook? "until it's a matter of time before anybody with a heart is going to give him a taste of that bullhook in his own measly, miserable hide."  (Ch. 9, Pg. 167)

On the foggy night, when the Circus Master came around, Woody felt eyes watching him.  Who did you think it was?

In the beginning of Ch. 10, Woody says he could do without birthdays. "A date on a calendar forcing you to look behind with no way to change things and look ahead with no way to know what's coming." (Pg. 199)  How do you feel about birthdays?

Red said, "Home's not the place you're from...It's the place you want to be." How do you define home? (Ch. 10, Pg. 215)

The Old Man thought that sixth sense was connected to animal instinct like a leftover survival instinct.  (Ch. 11, Pg. 237) What do you think?

Have you ever seen a murmuration of birds? (Ch. 11, Pg. 237)

Woody says "a good soul will read these pencil scratches of mine and do this last thing I cannot do." (Pg. 339)  What is the thing?

Theme Ideas

It might be fun to provide your readers with a map ahead of time so they can track their reading progress along the giraffe's route.  Or perhaps you know of an interactive map online that reader's could pin their location and all the group could participate on the same map.

Play a game where guests try to best cover a square with little pieces of foil, like people in the dustbowl tried to cover buildings with metal signs to keep the dust out. (Ch. 11, Pg. 229)
Play a game to try to guess names of groups of animals, such as a "tower of giraffes". (Pg. 335)


Decorate with copies of the LIFE magazine with the giraffes on the cover or other pictures from the event.
Decorate with Burma Shave ads. (Ch. 8, Pgs. 139-140)