Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? 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. But she can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.
-Ernest Hemingway (from a letter to Maxwell Perkins)
First printed in 1942, Beryl Markham’s West with the Night only sold moderately well despite stellar reviews. It was out of print for nearly four decades until rediscovered and reprinted in 1983. At the time, it was said Markham was living in near-poverty in Kenya, but the reprint allowed her to live out her days in relative comfort.
There is a very short list of the authors that I admire and respect, and whose work I will read countless times while all the other cheerless material I own only serves to fill the void of vacant shelf space. Hemingway was good; Jim Harrison is great; L’Amour not so bad. There are a few other contemporaries that I might add to this list should I have more space. There is also Harper Lee, who was the lone female—nothing against female writers, like the men, they are just few. But last week the female fraction of my list doubled when I read deep into the heart of Beryl Markham’s West with the Night.
It’s funny how books provide solace in the strangest places. I had opened it weeks prior, but had only given time to the first two chapters, which were good. When I must leave the solitude of southern Tennessee I seek in books the capability to transport my mind to majestic places even if the familiar theme isn’t within arm’s reach. I sat silently entertained, drops of rain incessantly streaking across my portal window, gathering more drops and thus more speed until the race was over and the populated runway the only prize. New York City sat behind me and around me in the dull gloom, and only West with the Night and the return home eased the hum of the engine and the previous night. I smiled, thinking that perhaps my soul was off in Africa while my body so dutifully endured its time in New York.
West with the Night isn’t a book on hunting, fishing, survival, Africa, or aviation, but one that encompasses all of these things in chronicling an adventurous life dreamed of by so many, but only lived by so few. Markham smartly leaves out the dramas of life—husbands, affairs, and so on—that draw the modern-day reader like a bug to light (except for a run-in with a near-tame lion and a baboon that lived on her father’s farm). It is without question that Africa created the foundation for her launch pad of a life full of fire and spirit and determination.
Markham was born in England in 1902 and moved to what was then British East Africa (now Kenya) by her father, an adventurer, horse breeder, and farmer, in 1906. She grew up hunting and playing barefooted with the native Nandi Murani children in the Rongai Valley and forests of the Mau Escarpment. She apprenticed under her father before he lost the farm and moved to Peru to find work with other horses and their owners. Markham moved to Molo to assume a career on her own as a racehorse trainer. She lost some races, won more, and eventually hung up her tack and took up aviation when it was still in its infancy. She eventually befriended and worked for the likes of Denys Finch-Hatton and Baron von Blixen, two of the greatest and most famous Western hunters ever to walk into, and out of, Africa; and became one of the very first pilots to scout for game, mainly elephants, from the air. When she wasn’t a scout, Markham was flying mail, medical supplies, tools, and people to the remote corners of the Sudan, Tanganyika, Rhodesia, and beyond.
While many believe she was the first person to fly solo, east to west, across the Atlantic Ocean, it should be noted that Markham was in fact the first woman to do so. Jim Mollison, whose watch she wore for her flight, was the first person. Man or woman, a plane is a plane and a pen is a pen. The only real downside to this wonderful woman was that she never wrote another book. Perhaps her memoir said all she needed to say and nothing more. Maybe it was the sleepless nights in the African bush, sitting around a fire with the natives, that taught her this. Or could it have been the interminable hours in the cockpit of her aeroplane—we’ll never know.
I wouldn’t say, simply because I don’t know for sure, that Beryl Markham was a single-minded woman who strove only for perfection, but I’d bet she was real close. Over all the morose foolishness we were forced to read and write reports on in school, the leaders of academia missed by a mile. West with the Night should have been a staple. Doers inspire dreamers, and Markham lived her life to the fullest and never once looked back. As I would always say at the end of each report in high school: I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone who ever thought non-conformity is something other than skipping the lunch line.
Image by Josh Wolfe