Sunday, June 24, 2007

Flying High

Title: West with the Night
Author: Beryl Markham

“‘When I am circumcised and become a Murani,” Kibii said, “and drink blood and curdled milk like a man, instead of ugali and nettles, like a woman, I will find whoever it was that killed my father and put my spear in his heart.’

‘You are very selfish, Kibii,’ I said. ‘I can jump as high as you can, and play all our games just as well. I can throw a spear almost as far. We will find him together and put both our spears in his heart.’”

West with the Night is the autobiography of Beryl Markham, who achieved fame when she completed the first solo transatlantic flight in the east-west direction. It was a historic flight, even though it did end when a frozen fuel line made her plane nose dive into a Newfoundland peat bog.

While the title of Markham’s autobiography references this feat, her description of the flight itself is not the most gripping part of the book. How could it be? No matter how dangerous the undertaking, there’s only so much drama that sitting in a cockpit for hours upon end can generate. Even the crash itself is rather anti-climactic. No, forget the chapters on aviation. The real winning parts of this book are the stories Markham tells about her life in Africa.

Markham was born in England, but grew up on her family’s horse farm in Kenya. Masai warriors (Murani) taught her how to track and hunt wild game, and the young Beryl became proficient at spear-throwing. She killed a black mamba snake, and was even mauled by a lion one day. This is definitely an exciting life, even though she and Kibii never did avenge his father's murder. I found that somewhat disappointing.

Still, there are plenty of thrilling stories in this book. Markham grew up to become a famous pilot and horse trainer. When she was only 24-years-old, her horse won Kenya’s biggest stakes. And she takes you with her as she flies the desert, scouring the landscape for a fellow pilot who’s gone missing. No reader could be bored by this.

There’s some controversy about whether Markham herself actually wrote West with the Night, or whether the real author was her third husband, writer and journalist Raoul Schumacher. The presence of similes involving Eton school boys makes me believe that Schumacher – even if he didn’t actually write it – at least had a hefty amount of input. But really, does it even matter? West with the Night remains a terrific read, thrilling from start to finish. It’s a recognized classic of adventure writing, and definitely worth the time of anyone interested in Africa or aviation.

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posted by Elizabeth at 2:36 PM


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