Monday, September 14, 2015

Circling the Sun: In, Not Out of, Africa

I had limited knowledge of Beryl Markham before reading Paula McLain's new novel based on this amazing woman's life. I'd read excerpts from Markham's West with the Night, but I knew nothing about her life other than her flying feat. However, I had read McLain's Paris Wife, her fictional account of the life of Hemingway's first wife, and I knew that she could make a work of literary art based on heavy research.

While reading this book, I caught Garrison Keillor's Writers Almanac one morning and learned that it was the anniversary of her famous transatlantic flight in 1936. His brief clip told me things about the flight I didn't learn from McLain (such as that her maps flew out of the plane early in the flight, seriously hampering her navigation efforts), but Circling the Sun is about so much more than the best-known event of Beryl Clutterbuck Markham's life.

Beginning in her protagonist's childhood, McLain recounts the departure of her mother, taking her son, when Beryl was young. In her afterword, the authors acknowledges that since her mother, too, had abandoned her when she was young, that she felt a stronger connection to her than she had to Hadley Hemingway. Undoubtedly, though, Beryl belonged in Kenya, with her father, where she roamed with the native children until a new "housekeeper" intervened and sent her away to school to attempt to civilize her.

Growing up at their farm Green Hills around her father's thoroughbred horses, Beryl goes on to become the first woman licensed as a trainer--at a younger age than most men.  The story goes on to describe her early ill-fated marriage, which seemed her only option when her father suffered economic failure that cost him his farm. Beryl's own strong will and independent streak often made her a target of gossip, especially as she began to move in a new social circle.

One of the biggest surprises to me was the major role of Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesin) in Beryl's life, especially the strong friendship the two develop despite Beryl's attraction to Blixen's lover, Denys Finch Hatton (the Robert Redford character in Out of Africa). Most interesting, too, was the note that when Karen wrote her story, Beryl is completely absent.

While Markham is probably best known for her flying feat (first woman flying west to east across the Atlantic), aviation comes late in the novel, and her interest develops only after other life events take away her joy in her horses. It seems even more surprising that her own flying begins in earnest after losing people close to her in plane crashes.

Through the novel, McLain brings to life a woman whose life of contradictions and conflict drew the attention, criticism, scandal and admiration across England, Africa, and the U.S. and whose memoir made an impression on Ernest Hemingway, whose praise led to the rediscovery of the book many years after its publication.

After reading McLain's two novels based on the lives of real women from this period of history, I look forward to learning where her research leads her next.

1 comment:

Teddy Copeland said...

This was on my list of books to read. Glad to hear your comments about it.