Monday, October 24, 2011
Book Review: West With the Night
West With the Night (North Point Press) by Beryl Markham was first copyrighted in 1942, so don’t look for this gem on the just-released shelf. Since I’m researching memoirs and am always interested in all things African, I found this book extraordinary. Markham, born in England but raised in British East Africa, shows a powerful command of the English language.
In her childhood Markham hunted with tribesmen, endured the same discomforts, ran the distance with the best of them. Later, she followed her father’s passion for horses, raising thoroughbreds for the track and keeping them for her own pleasure.
In the mid-1930's, Markham became enchanted with flying and learned from a master flyer, Tom Black, who taught her in a D. H. Gipsy Moth. She achieved her “A” license, then later, her “B” license which entitled her to earn a living flying. In the early years, she carried mail, passengers, supplies to safaris and occasionally joined in a search for a downed plane. Often, her destination was marked by a single column of smoke, or at night, a row of small fires or lanterns.
Hunting bull elephant for their ivory was popular in the 1930's. As I read these encounters, I simply had to put aside what we know now about extinction and the injustice of killing an animal for a single feature of its body. Markham became enamored with the sport of spotting herds of elephant, working with one of Africa’s best known white hunters, Baron von Blixen, whom Markham called Blix.
In 1936, Beryl Markham met head-on a challenge of a trans-Atlantic solo flight, east to west, England to America. She would fly non-stop a night and a day. However, somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland ice lodged in the petrol tank’s air intake, partially choking fuel flow to the carburetor. The engine failed, caught, failed again and again, but finally would not restart and, after twenty-one hours and twenty-five minutes, Markham had to force-land in a Nova Scotia bog, burying the plane’s wheels and tipping it head-first into the mud. Markham managed to crawl out of the plane and wandered in the muck for an hour before being rescued.
Beryl Markham was a remarkable woman and West With the Night a memorable accounting of her life. Ernest Hemingway said of this book, “...[Beryl Markham] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers...” I won’t argue with that. It is an engaging, elegant book.