Before reading this book, all I knew about Beryl Markham was that Ernest Hemingway called her a “supreme bitch” and then went on to praise her writing in West With the Night. I put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list for this year, and in anticipation of Paula McLain’s upcoming fictional biography of Markham, I finally read it. What a treat this book proved to be (although you have to remember that this book was written before the concept of colonization became problematic and the hunt for ivory a bad thing).
Beryl Markham was born in Great Britain, but moved to present-day Kenya when she was 4. She grew up motherless on her father’s horse farm, speaking Swahili and hunting warthogs with the native Masai. When her father decided to move to Peru, Markham, who was 17 by then, chose to stay in Africa. She worked as a racehorse trainer, becoming the first female licensed trainer in Kenya. Her adventurous nature led her to learn how to fly—aviation was still in its infancy then, especially in Africa. For a while, she worked for a fledgling airline, delivering supplies and mail to anyone anywhere and then as a spotter for big game hunters, particularly those looking to hunt elephants. In 1936, Markham became the first woman to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo non-stop flight. After World War II, she returned to Kenya and horse racing.
You won’t find the juicer parts of Markham’s life in this book. She mentions none of her marriages and affairs and not even her child. What you will find is a gorgeously written memoir by a woman with an appetite for adventure, a keen eye for detail, and a wry sense of humor. Markham recounts some remarkable events—being attacked by a lion or nearly trampled to death by an elephant—in a way that make them seem normal. She is completely unconcerned with the endless number of dangers that come with being an aviation pioneer in a remote part of the planet: damaging the plane during a rough landing with no spare parts to fix it, running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere, crashing in an area where there’s nothing except flesh-eating ants. The list goes on and on.
I wondered if her understated way of writing might be a way of “humble-bragging,” but her voice is too consistent to not be authentic. Plus, she was surrounded from early age by people for whom these scenarios were everyday life. The Masai were her companions from early on.
“Sometimes he would tell me stories about the tribal wars—wars between the Masai and the Kikuyu (which the Masai always won), or between the Masai and the Nandi (which neither of them ever won), and about their great leaders and their wild way of life which, to me, seemed much greater fun than our own.”
Considering Markham’s childhood, how much more fun can there be?
Later, she met other adventurers, like Denys Finch Hatton and Tom Black, who approached danger with the same nonchalance as she did. I think there was simply no space in her life for wonder at some of the more unusual situations she found herself in.
West With the Night does not give the reader a complete picture of Markham’s life, but it is satisfying nonetheless. It was fascinating to read about those parts of her life she decided to share in this memoir, and I am looking forward to reading more about her.