Friday, April 30, 2010

Review: West with the Night

Author: Beryl Markham
Format: trade paperback 296 pages
Setting: British East Africa (1920-1940) 
Genre: Memoir
Source: originally from library, but personal copy bought from Amazon
Challenge: Support your local Library

An amazing memoir written by a pioneering aviatrix about her early life in British East Africa (now Kenya) as a farmer's daughter, race horse trainer, and eventually, bush pilot delivering mail, supplies, and ferrying people across the uncharted territory of eastern Africa.  She was the first person, male or female to fly solo from London to America going from east to west. Her mother left her with her father in Africa to return to England. "Baru" as she was called by the natives, worked with her father, living in mud huts, then later her own wood cottage, reading at night by oil lamp.  There is no mention in the book of any nanny, governess, or tutor.  She appears to be entirely self-taught, a concept making this book all the more exceptional.

Her exquisite prose makes the book. The story is exciting and interesting, almost unbelievable (I supposed teen aged white women could go hunting lions accompanied only by African tribesman and equipped only with a spear!) but told with such clear and image-evoking words that the reader just sinks into this book. It is a book to be savored, read slowly, marked up, and read again.  And if it's first read as a library book, it is one to run out and purchase to have to look back at.

I found myself breathless and stopped dumb in my reading tracks at points, having to put the book down, and then read and re-read passages. My library copy is full of little yellow stickies to mark such passages as:

(speaking of a 'pet' lion kept by her father's farmhands): "He spent his waking hours..wandering through Elkingtons' fields and pastures like an affable, if apostrophic, emperor, a-stroll in the gardens of his court."

"One day the stars will be as familiar to each man as the landmarks, the curves, and the hills on the road that leads to his door, and one day this will be an airborne life. But by then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to a familiarity with labelled buttons, and in whose minds knowledge of the sky and the wind and the way of weather will be extraneous as passing fictions." (this book was written in 1942, and she was relating this as she spoke of her early flying lessons around 1925-30.)

Her imagery, particularly when relating treks through African jungles and deserts is spellbinding:

"You could expect many things of God at night when the campfire burned before the tents. You could look through and beyond the veils of scarlet and see shadows of the world as God first made it and the hear the voices of the beasts He put there. It was a world as old as Time....When the low stars shone over it and the moon clothed it in silver fog, it was the way the firmament must have been when the waters had gone and the night of the Fifth Day had fallen on creatures still bewildered by the wonder of their being."

Even Ernest Hemingway, who at some point crossed paths with Ms. Markham, remarks on the back cover:

"...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 as writers...I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book."
 Who am I to argue with Hemingway?

1 comment:

  1. Tina, I read this years ago and loved it as much as you did. Now that I am reminded of her beautiful way with language, I must read it again, and I never re-read books.


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