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West With The Night Paperback – 1983
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"Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West with the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people's stories, are absolutely true . . . I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book."--Ernest Hemingway
About the Author
Beryl Markham is also the author of The Splendid Outcast: The African Stories of Beryl Markham.
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Her crowning achievement was a solo flight from Europe to Newfoundland, 3600 miles, 2000 of it unbroken ocean, in a small plane with no radio and no electronic guidance systems. She had to let the engine die to ensure that she had completely consumed the fuel in a tank before switching to another tank and restarting the engine! It was an astonishing accomplishment for any pilot, and the first time for a woman to make such a solo flight. She writes with such intensity of the details of the 1936 flight that you feel like you're in the plane with her, gripped with the suspense and surrounded by the black night.
Markham's writing is beautiful and at times poetic, especially when she describes the landscape and inhabitants of Africa. She lived in the wonderful era described so gorgeously in "Out of Africa", and even knew some of the people described in that book. She lived another 50 years after this magnificent feat, and I wish she had been convinced to continue writing.
The story culminates in an epic, trans-Atlantic flight, but along the way it reads like a marvelous bed-time story--the kind that the Aesop's Fables author might have written if he had lived in Africa, observing human and animal nature in an era that feels farther removed from today than a mere century should seem.
I enjoyed three things about this book: the beautiful language with which it is written, the observations of a world I will never see, and the affirmation that yes, it is possible to become all that one might be if only one takes that first step and then the next and the next.
Paula McClain's book Circling the Sun is a fictional memoir of Beryl Markham, and West with the Night is her actual memoir. I wondered at first why McClain would choose Markham of all people to fictionalize, when Markham had already spoken for herself in this memoir. I was almost irritated. After all, Markham is dead. She can't speak up and say, "that's not how it happened. Read the book I ALREADY WROTE if you want to know." Now that I've finished West with the Night, I understand why Mcclain wanted to write Circling the Sun.
Markham writes about how she came to hunt with the Masai tribe as a child in Africa, and how she came to love and train horses (when there were no other women doing it), and how she came to fly planes (when hardly anyone, let alone women, was doing it), but she dwells not at all on her personal relationships or feelings, which for the curious reader should provide context and explanation of Markham's unusual talent and viewpoint.
She writes more about the moody, wise, indifferent nature of Africa than she writes about her own feelings. We have no idea, for instance, what it felt like when her mother left Markham and her father to return to England when Markham was four years old. You don't even know from West with the Night that Markham's father practically forced her into marrying an older man at the age of 17 because her father was moving and didn't know what else to do with her. These events undoubtedly shaped Markham's courage and ambition, but West with the Night doesn't tell us how.
West with the Night is the end result of some strange fomentation within the person of Markham. She writes without arrogance and with plenty of humor about all of her 'firsts.' To Markham, they were simply good ideas. She cared nothing for, or even seemed to think about at all, what other people thought of her. She moved in circles that other women never entered, and was treated as one of the boys. In making life decisions, like the decision to move to Britain, for instance, she was pointed solely by the needle of her own compass. She was happy flying and scouting game in Africa, but wondered what she might be missing. So she moved. Apparently, men followed her. I admit to my morbid curiosity on this point, and I may read Circling the Sun for McClain's take on the other parts of Markham's life.
On the other hand, I may not read it. Markham's critics accuse her of not writing her own memoir (it's too good, they say, to be written by her), and of being a home-wrecker. Her critics look for opportunities to criticize her, for of course she is too unbelievable to escape jealousy. Our curiosity about Markham's personal life shares also this unbelieving desire to justify, to show how the rest of us may have gotten from Point A to Markham's Point Z if only we'd been born into similar circumstances. Really, all you need to know is that she did these things, in spite of fear, and did them well. She was luminous and rare. You can sit back and be inspired by her story without having to justify, explain, or otherwise take away from its magnificence by delving into a personal life she preferred to leave private.
This is NOT a memoir; more a series of vignettes that Markham put together from her memory which she announces from the beginning that is extremely hard to recover accurately. Reprinted when she was in her 80s, it became a best seller. The original printing was received well, but not nearly so well as when she was rediscovered. It didn't help that many believe she was not the "real" author; she never wrote anything else that came close to the beautiful prose exhibited here.
Praised by Hemingway, who evidently envied her writing skills, fame faded away from this woman whose personality was forbidding (except for her lovers, one presumes) and enigmatic. Not one word about her somewhat unconventional life is present in this volume, but her deep and abiding love for Africa is evident throughout. Worth reading for its use of language and evocative images, don't look for her to reveal the private details of a life that must have been fascinating.