How do you select reading material? Me, I like to browse titles until I happen on something that catches my eye and attention; it’s especially fun to browse titles in thrift shops where I know I’m going to be paying pennies on the dollar for a new book. Yes, I understand that the writer is getting nothing from this sale, but these days I just don’t have the disposable income to support the starving writers of the world. They do have my sympathy, and more; I’m one of that motley crew, after all.
So it was that I happened to notice a clean looking paperback with an interesting title – West with the Night – by somebody named Beryl Markham. The cool green cover featured a head-shot of a Victorian looking woman wearing an old, leather flying helmet, WWII vintage.
I picked up the interesting book and read the blurb on the back cover. And there it was. A blurb from Ernest Hemingway, describing Beryl Markham as one of the best writers he had ever read. That was it. I had to read this book. I know you want to read exactly what Hemingway wrote so here it is, in full.
From a letter to Maxwell Perkins:
“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, WEST WITH THE NIGHT? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, 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. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true … I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book” (Ernest Hemingway)
That kind of praise from Dude Doodley would be great; coming from Ernest Hemingway, well, you get it.
So I grabbed my copy of West with the Night for 75 cents plus tax and took it home with me. The book had been published in 1983 by North Point Press in San Francisco and sold then for $12.50.
It conveniently happened that my reading group was just then looking for some new material so all agreed to give Ms Markham a tryout, based on Hemingway’s flatulent (they thought) blurb. No one wanted to believe that some uncelebrated writer could be that good.
For those of you unfamiliar with my reading group, it comprises me and my three young’uns, Zachary (14) Zizi (12) and Grace (11). We read together every night, taking turns to read aloud. We talk about the books we read, remarking on what we like and dislike as we go on. We’ve been doing this for years.
West with the Night is a memoir that reads like fiction. I guess that’s why Hemingway put in that bit about the verification of the events in the book. One of the remarks from the reading group, I think it was Zizi who said it, but we all agreed, was that the ending was so poetic that it was hard to believe that life could actually happen like that.
It’s a simple story about a fairly interesting life – a young English girl grows up in Africa with her single parent father, learning to train racehorses and to live in the bush like a Murani warrior. A chance meeting with a colorful tinkerer introduces her to flying and when her father loses his farm and she is forced to make her own way in the world, she trains for and gets her pilot’s license and becomes a bush pilot in East Africa. Eventually she decides to leave Africa altogether and return to her roots in England. After an adventurous flight that doesn’t end particularly well, she returns to Africa, presumably to live, and maybe write, some more.
Beryl deserves every bit of the praise she got from Ernest. She writes beautifully, poetically, about Africa and Africans; Italians invading Ethiopia; about flying; about horses; about dogs; hunting; the weather, and anything else she cares to mention. Her style is dated, marked by long sentences, constructed with the beautiful architecture of Virginia Woolf; these days popular writing eschews long, slow sentences.
But this is a memoir?
Not really … it actually has a plot and is driven by a story with a beginning and an end. There’s not a lot about the life of Beryl Markham. We never hear anything about her dramatically absent mother. Beryl never falls in love, never betrays any attraction to a man or a woman. She’s celibate without ceremony; all her emotions are integral to the story. When she feels what she feels, it’s to move the story forward. Yet none of it feels contrived. If it’s a story, it’s a well written story.
Read this book to be entertained, to be pleasured, which is a rare thing in a book. It’s one of those that you don’t want to end.