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May 29, 2015 / CB

Book Review: West with the Night, by Beryl Markham

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For reasons I am quite happy with, I don’t travel as much as I once did.  All the same, wanderlust stirs my soul from time to time, making me long to see mountains and oceans and strange trees.  Thank God for books, especially books like this.  Markham’s memoir of colonial Africa is poetically written, creating pictures of a place long ago and far away.  So much has changed in the last fifty years, however, that it’s perhaps easier read as historical fiction than anything else.

I have no illusions about the ills caused by Europe’s colonization of Africa.  That, however, does not diminish my enjoyment of this book.  Much like her friend & lover Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Markham paints linguistic pictures of wonder and respect for the land she inhabits.  Likewise, there is clear love for the people she talks about, regardless of their ancestry.  There are things about her life that I find reprehensible, but I read them as a reflection of her culture as much as of Markham herself.

One of her principal means of employment was as a bush pilot and scout for elephant safaris.  Now, there are still places in the world where this happens, but I think most people would roundly shame anyone involved.  It strikes me as pretty terrible to hunt a species teetering on the brink of endangerment.  Of course, when Markham was flying, the elephant wasn’t so scarce.  Indeed, I don’t know that there was a cultural sense that a species could be lost all together.  If there was, it certainly isn’t present in this book.  For all the due respect that Markham pays the elephant, she discusses it with same pragmatism that I’ve seen other hunters use for animals like elk.  While I was at first put off by this, it didn’t take me long to appreciate these sections for their historical value.  In them, we the readers get an artifact of a lost (or at least greatly diminished) way of thinking.  While I have no intention of ever taking on this point of view, there is value in knowing that it exists, that it was once the norm.

The parts I found most engaging, most exciting, came not in the author’s airborne adventures, but in her childhood.  Despite being born in England, Markham did most of her growing up on a horse farm in Kenya.  The land, animals, and people of her father’s farm at Njoro are all lovingly described.  Markham has that peculiar talent of being able to write about things dear to her without drifting into hyperbolic sentiment.  Instead, the reader gets a sense of the real emotion behind the words without sacrificing descriptive detail.  This is especially true of the Murani people who were Markham’s friends.  It would be easy to read these passages cynically, to say that this is the Westerner painting with rose-colored glasses on, but I chose not to go down that path.  As a reader, I chose to take Markham at her word, to believe that these men and women really did love the little white girl.  There’s not a sense that the Murani made her one of their own so much as they accepted her rather stubborn presence.  They insult her when she deserves it and praise her in the same way; Markham returns both favors.  Taking these stories at face value, suspending my natural skepticism, allows the beauty of the words to shine and makes the reading more enjoyable.

There is no arguing that Beryl Markham is a product of white privilege; she does nothing to either disguise it or exploit it in the book.  Likewise, there is no arguing that she is a good writer.  She tells the story she has to tell, filling it with hunts and horses and daring flights.  She records some of her more memorable escapades as an aviatrix, but the reader gets the sense that these are not the stories she loves best.  They don’t carry the same weight, aren’t crafted quite so well as her time spent on Africa’s soil.  Wherever she is, though, she is herself.  She does not compromise or bow to the whims of the men around her, be they black or white.  And while I’m fully aware there is more to her story, the character she creates for herself is an inspiration regardless of the reader’s own gender.

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