West with the Night by Beryl Markham

So, I picked up this book because the excellent Jasper Fforde said it was on his recently read list. I also picked up a few others he recommended, but this one is the first that rose to the top of my embarrassingly tall to-read pile.

I love it. About three pages in I was all, “sh-t, this is good.” 0_0 (I curse when I am overly happy…pretty much the only time I curse outside of when I drive.)

The book is an autobiographical account of Beryl Markham’s life in relation to her being a bush pilot in Africa back in the 1930s. Markham lived a very interesting life. Her father moved her to Africa at a very young age and she grew up on a farm and played with local kids, hunted, had a lot of flings with famous people (Africa was the hip place back then), took up flying, and later got into training race horses…and writing. She was one of those people who could, upon a lark, master anything. And as a woman that came off as annoying to many at the time, but it didn’t seem to bother her. Africa was a comfortable place for eccentrics and she mingled with the best of them.

There’s some debate on if she actually did write this book or not. I just love how people continually question women for being able to write well. The same questions came when Elizabeth Keckly published her memoirs. If it is anyway good or inspired it must have been written by a man, right? Any case, it is a story about her experiences told from a point of view that seems very difficult to write if you were not her. You have to understand both the mindset of a pilot crazy enough to fly in Africa, of someone who was raised in Africa, and finally – you have to have her attitude. I don’t know how anyone but her could have written it. I’m sure she had a good editor and didn’t publish whatever fell out the back of her typewriter. That doesn’t mean she didn’t write it.

“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 so 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 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 to Maxwell Perkins

Early favorite quotes small enough to share:

“Night flying over charted country by the aid of instruments and radio can still be a lonely business, but to fly in an unbroken darkness without even the cold companionship of a pair of ear-phones or the knowledge that somewhere ahead are lights and life and a well-marked airport is something more than just lonely.” p10

“It would be a hard fate to go down in the memory of one’s friends as having been tripped up by a wandering zebra. ‘Tried to take off and hit a zebra!’ It lacks even the dignity of crashing into an anthill.” p15

“…it was even more disconcerting to examine your charts before a proposed flight only to find that in many cases the bulk of the terrain over which you had to fly was bluntly marked: ‘UNSURVEYED.’ It was as if the mapmakers had said, ‘We are aware that between this spot and that one, there are several hundred thousands of acres, but until you make a forced landing there, we won’t know whether it is mud, desert, or jungle – and the chances are we won’t know then!'” p35

“She was a little like the eccentric genius who, after being asked by his host why he had rubbed the broccoli in his hair at dinner, apologized with a bow from the waist and said he had though it was spinach.” p40 (about a strange horse she once owned who would spontaneously dump its rider and frolic in the mud…it also adopted a baby zebra who chose it over its mother on a chance meeting and scuffle.)

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