Autobiographies can be tricky things to read. Often there is more of the author’s life left out of the story then what is included and that can make for rough reading. When reading West With The Night, a quick check on Beryl Markham’s life shows that there are a good many things she leaves out of her own story. But if you are more interested in the internal life of a larger than life subject, then this is an autobiography worth reading.
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Markham, one of the great pioneers of early aviation, recounts nothing of the facts of her life, the type typically entered as a matter of course in a Wikipedia entry. She doesn’t discuss her family dynamics. She comes from a broken family and goes with her father to Kenya at the age of 4. She has three marriages and a child of her own, events that are also left out of this account.
What this account does reflect on are the two great forces of Markham’s life: her childhood in Africa and her devotion to flying.
From the very beginning she paints vivid word pictures of the world she experienced, one that she is careful to say cannot represent the true Africa, only her Africa. She feels that no writer can represent the “true” Africa, only the one that they have experienced.
Markham’s Africa abounds with descriptions of the landscape, the animals and the people. We can almost smell every puff of dust and every bit of green in the land of her childhood. We see the local people through her eyes, like her mentor Arab Maina who teaches her to hunt and tells the stories of his people. We can see her as she works with Otieno and Toombo to help a mare birth a foal. Even the animals she talks about – the dog Buller, the stallion Camciscan – are among those she holds dearest in her heart.
Her world is beautiful but dangerous, a fact that is so apparent to Markham, she hardly seems to notice it. Attacked by a supposedly tame lion as a child, Beryl shrugs the story off even as she tells it. She tells her stories of the hunt as though every child has faced a wounded warthog and lived to tell the tale.
This matter of fact accounting bleeds over into Markham’s tales about flight. She describes the feeling of the stick, the coaxing of the throttle, the plane’s reluctance to leave the ground until it suddenly flies. But there is a firm boundary between her ordinary life and her life as a flyer. The people she describes are not people from her ordinary life. Beryl focuses only on people like Tom Black, who taught her to fly, or Blix, whom she worked for as a bush pilot on safari. Only those people who join Beryl in her adventures are given life here.
If you are fascinated by people’s inner lives then Beryl Markham’s West With The Night easily delivers this experience. Check this book out with ARCPLS’s LIBBY app today. For more information go to arcpls.org or call your nearest branch library.