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December 04, 2023

West with the Night: Book Review

By Lydia Manx

West with the Night, by Beryl Markham.

West with the Night is a memoir written by Beryl Markham, that flows as a romp through Africa as seen through the eyes of a pilot and adventurer born shortly after the beginning of the century. Her life is painted out in good solid descriptions and enchanting images of Africa through the twenties and thirties. She was the first pilot to fly solo the North Atlantic from east to west and live to tell the story. And what a story she weaves recalling her madcap adventures growing up in Kenya as a bush pilot and explorer.

"But there are a hundred places to start for there are a hundred names -- Mwanza, Serengetti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakuru. There are easily a hundred names, and I can begin best by choosing one of them -- not because it is first nor of any importance in a wildly adventurous sense, but because here it happens to be, turned uppermost in my logbook. After all, I am no weaver. Weavers create."

Nevertheless, she does weave and bob through the bush while explaining why each spot in her logbook has a meaning or a story. She crafts the age in which she was born while explaining how she became. Her father moved the family to Kenya when it was then British East Africa, where she ran with the natives and learned to ride horses before she flew. Her mother quickly returned to England and left her child to fend in the bush. The farm her father purchased allowed her the freedom to train horses.

Beryl Markham details how she felt during her years playing with the horses while not bothering to conform to the society mores for a young woman. Her impetuous attitude, and her inability to simply cave in and play by the rules, as she takes on challenges and defiantly grows up with no boundaries in the vast untamed Africa pulls the reader in, cheering for her to survive. Her father's farm becomes known for the horses that are trained there, and she is part of the reason. But her wild ways running free on the farm culminated for her, when she was attacked by a lion and rescued by one of her friends. She felt for the lion while finally acknowledging she was somewhat accountable.

"To an eagle or to an owl or to a rabbit, man must seem a masterful and yet a forlorn animal; he has but two friends. In his almost universal unpopularity he points out, with pride, that these two are the dog and the horse. He believes, with an innocence peculiar to himself, that they are equally proud of this alleged confraternity. He says, 'Look at my two noble friends - - they are dumb, but they are loyal.' I have suspected for years that they are only tolerant."

Her turns of phrases are strong and true. She queries life constantly and answers some questions in her heart. Then she comes out with gems like this:

"You talk, but who listens? You listen, but who talks? Is it someone you know? And do the things he says explain the stars or give an answer to the quiet questions of a single sleepless bird? Think of these questions; fold your arms across your knees and stare at the firelight and at the embers waning on its margin. The questions are your questions too."

She recounts her meeting with Ernest Hemingway and other adventurers like herself. Hemingway and she seem to understand Africa and each other.

"There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa -- and as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime. Whoever writes a new one can afford a certain complacency in the knowledge that his is a new picture agreeing with no one else's, but likely to be haughtily disagreed with by all those who believed in some other Africa. ... Being thus all things to all authors, it follows, I suppose, that Africa must be all things to all readers."

"Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer's paradise, a hunter's Valhalla, an escapist's Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just 'home.'"

The memoir reads like a novel more than an autobiography, and is enjoyable with the images of a past era and the fun she had flying into the darkness. After reading West with the Night, I found myself looking up the woman, and found that her scandalous adventures were far more than she disclosed in her work. She lived her life to the fullest, and the rediscovery of her book in 1982 allowed her story to be told again.

"After that, work and hope. But never hope more than you work."
Article © Lydia Manx. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-11-07
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