Beryl Markham grew up in Kenya. In her adulthood, she first worked with race horses and later became a pilot. At one point, she crossed the Atlantic from Europe to North America solo, one of the first people to do so. This is her memoir.
I was sort of middle-of-the-road on this book. Back in 2008, I read two other memoirs from that part of Africa. The first was Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), who was actually a friend of Beryl Markham’s and referred to her in Out of Africa as a horse-riding tomboy named Felicity. I adored Out of Africa despite it being a very slow book, and I felt like I learned a lot from it. The second is a more recent book, written for a middle-grade audience: Facing the Lion by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton. It was a little too young for me but I still remember certain scenes from it. Unfortunately, coming to West With the Night third, a lot of what Beryl Markham talks about with regards to Africa and Kenya felt repetitious to me. It wasn’t repetitious within itself, so I’m sure a reader who hadn’t already read several memoirs from that region wouldn’t have this impression, but that made it less interesting for me than it should have been. I still enjoyed it more than Facing the Lion, but no where near as much as Out of Africa.
My favorite part of this memoir was Part 1, where she talks a lot about flying and the conditions involved in very early flying over much uncharted territory. That was all new to me, so there was none of that repetitious feel. Once it get into Part 2 and beyond, where it talked about her childhood and about Africa in general, my interest started to fade. Eventually it came back to flight, and my interest was caught again. The only bad thing about that part of the book was all the talk about hunting elephants for their tusks. Sob! I adore elephants and was a little put out by statements like it’s okay to hunt elephants because they’re smart enough to evade humans, and that makes the two sides “equal.” Yeah? Does that elephant have an airplane to hunt you and a gun to shoot at you? Are they ripping off parts of your body and leaving you to die? I have issues with sport hunting in general, and elephant hunting in particular really disturbs me. I was glad when Markham returned to England to work on her cross-Atlantic flight and left the poor elephants alone!
I feel like all I’m doing is complaining about this book and I really don’t mean to sound like that. I did enjoy it and I don’t regret reading it. It was much faster and easier to read than Out of Africa, but far more informative for adults than a middle-grade book like Facing the Lion, so I think it’s a good alternative if you can’t make it through Out of Africa. You of course have to keep in mind the time period. Markham definitely has a “white man’s burden” mentality, where she respects the Africans and Indians she’s grown up with, but views them much the same way as people view children. She thinks of them fondly as naive almost-people, which was very common in the British at the time. For a modern reader, I know this can be grating, but I always try to read things in the context of when they were written. She isn’t disdainful and she clearly loves Africa and the people in it, even if she thinks of them as childlike and/or more primitive. I just wanted to throw this out in case it’s an attitude that you can’t get past, even in context of its time period.
Performance: I listened to the audio version of this, read by Anna Fields, and she was a wonderful narrator. She read a lot like Kate Reading (who read The Host) and I think her narration made this book more enjoyable to me than it would have been in print.