Sunday, June 5, 2016

West With The Night by Beryl Markham

West With The Night by Beryl Markham
Originally Published 1942
Source: purchased for my Nook

Summary (
The memoir of Beryl Markham, horse trainer, bush pilot, and history making aviatrix. Beryl Markham grew up in the wilds of Africa where her father raised racehorses on their farm. Beryl followed in her father's footsteps by becoming the first woman in Africa to receive her horse-training license. Fascinated with the talents of her friend, Tom Black, Beryl learned to fly and went on to become the first person to fly east to west across the Atlantic from London to North America. Although her flight ended in Nova Scotia rather than the intended New York, Beryl will always be known for her courage and her groundbreaking talents.

My Thoughts:
Having recently read Paula McLain's fictionalized account of Markham's life (Circling The Sun - my review here), I was eager to "hear" the story in Markham's own words, particularly in light of so many critics who questioned why McLain felt the need to write her novel when Markham had already told her story.

I imagine McLain's reasons were twofold: Markham's life was exceptional and historic and Markham shared very little of her personal life in her own book. In West With The Night, Markham doesn't mention her husbands at all, rarely speaks of the father who raised her after her mother abandoned a very young Beryl, or her many lovers. Friends are only mentioned in so far as they pertain to the antidotes Markham is sharing. I missed the people that shared Markham's life in her own book.

There's been some debate as to whether or not Markham actually wrote West With The Night, particularly in light of the fact that it was written at the time she was married to a writer. I don't really care who wrote it. It is clearly Markham's story as she wanted it told and it's wonderfully written.
"Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer's paradise, a hunter's Valhalla, an escapist's Utopia. It is what you will, it it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one."
What West With The Night lacks in personal detail, it more than makes up for in atmosphere. Markham is unsentimental except when she writes about animals and Africa.
"...for Africa was the breath and life of my childhood. 
It is still the host of all my darkest fears, the cradle of mysteries always intriguing, but never wholly solved. It is the remembrance of sunlight and green hills, cool water and the yellow warmth of bright mornings. It is as ruthless as any sea, more uncompromising than its own deserts. It is without temperance in its harshness or in its favors. It yields nothing, offering much to men of all races. 
But the soul of Africa, its integrity, the slow inexorable pulse of its life, is its own and of such singular rhythm that no outsider, unless steeped from childhood in its endless, even beat, can ever hope to experience it, except only as a bystander might experience a Masai war dance knowing nothing of its music nor the meanings of its steps."
Of her unforgettable adventures Markham wrote:
"The only disadvantage in surviving a dangerous experience lies in the fact that your story of it tends to be anticlimactic. You can never carry on right through the point where whatever it is that threatens your life actually takes it - and get anybody to believe you. The world is full of sceptics."
Maybe so when telling the stories to people living on colonial Africa but for today's readers tales of surviving lion and bull elephant attacks and perilous flights over dangerous territory and oceans the stories are all the more incredible for Markham's ability to survive on her own terms.
"We are bound for a place thirty-six hundred miles from here - two thousand miles of it unbroken ocean. Most of the way it will be night. We are flying west with the night."

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