Tuesday, April 29, 2008

West With the Night by Beryl Markham: Review

Disclaimer: I read this a few months ago now and I seem to have misplaced my copy of the book, so I’m going off memory here.

As I said before, my parents brought this book when they came to visit and left it behind. Neither of them could stop talking about it, so I picked it up right away and was pleasantly surprised. This is one of those books that I found baffling—for two different reasons. First, that I had never heard of it before. It’s just too good of a book. Everyone should know about it. And not just those who have an interest in Africa. Second, I was baffled by the writing. It’s just too good. And it’s not fair. How can this woman excel at everything she does? How can she raise thoroughbred horses single-handedly, as a teenager, and then become this pioneering woman by flying planes in the 1930s, and then write as beautifully as she does?

Beryl Markham was raised by her father in Nairobi at the turn of the century. She grew up on a farm, befriending hearty, faithful animals who would follow her anywhere and strong, honorable Masaai warriors, who take her hunting and who would risk their own lives to save hers. A Masaai boy is her best friend and later in life becomes something like her servant, a constant companion, completely devoted. Written in an era when the British in East Africa were kings, there are moments like this that make you feel the complications of the times and how things have changed. Markham loved and respected her best friend and yet to her it was so normal that he woke her each morning with a tray of tea, that he cleaned and maintained her plane, that he seemed to cater to her every need.

The middle part of the book Markham devotes to her teenage years as a horse breeder. After a few years of drought, her father sold the farm in Nairobi and moved to South America. He gave the 17-year-old a choice, to go with him or to stay in Kenya on her own. Having lived in Africa since she was a child, it was in her blood to stay. Her love for the land and for the people is deeply felt.

The last, and perhaps most exciting, part of the book is left to flying. Markham was the first woman to complete a solo flight across the Atlantic going from East to West. (Her destination was New York but she crashed the plane in Canada — and obviously lived to tell about it.) Prior to this, though, her flying — like most things in her life — is built on friendships. What fascinates is not the small details of flying, delivering goods to remote areas of the country or even tracking elephants for safaris (actual hunting safaris, to kill the elephants for their tusks), but the rescue of a fellow pilot in the Serengeti and the motherly advice from the man who taught her to fly.

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