Low key pioneer: a review of West with the Night

A review of West with the Night by Beryl Markham
293 pages.  North Point Press, 1983.

I was motivated to read this book based on its prominence (within the top ten) on National Geographic Adventure‘s “100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time” list.  My anticipation was further heightened by an endorsement on the back of the book from one Ernest Hemingway, himself no slouch in the writing department:

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 writers.

After that kind of build-up, it would be easy to disappoint; but Hemingway is not exaggerating.

Beryl Markham

West with the Night is concisely written and edited; it will evoke the sights, sounds and emotions of bygone days with exquisite and almost effortless efficiency.  The prose is not sparse, but there is not a wasted word in the whole volume.  Its series of chronologically-ordered vignettes recount Markham’s childhood and adult experiences in what was British East Africa of the early 20th century, and they are all rather captivating.  These accounts are bookended by more contemporary events in her flying career, although the aviation-related portions are written with the layman in mind and a minimum of technical jargon.  Here is a taste of the prose:

[Woody] was flying a German Klemm monoplane equipped with a ninety-five horsepower British Pobjoy motor.  If this combination had any virtue in such vast and unpredictable country, it was that the extraordinary wingspan of the plane allowed for long gliding range and slow landing speed.

Swiftness, distance, and the ability to withstand rough weather were, none of them, merits of the Klemm.  Neither the plane nor the engine it carried was designed for more than casual flying over well-inhabited, carefully charted country, and its use by East African Airways for both transport messenger service seemed to us in Kenya, who flew for a living, to indicate a somewhat reckless persistence in the pioneer tradition.

— Markham, Beryl.  “The Stamp of Wilderness.” West with the Night.  New York: North Point Press, 2001.  p. 35.

Like her contemporary Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (who wrote the much more famous novel Out of Africa), Markham’s personal life had its share of marital disappointment and ill-fated affairs.  But more remarkably, not a word of this makes it into print; the focus is squarely on capital-A adventures and exceptional events.  Markham spares no narrative room for the angst-ridden worries of the heart, not even to let us know she got married a couple of times.  All very understandable, as her life was exciting enough and there was no need to mine her romantic life for additional drama.

There are other useful comparisons between the two books, as well.  Out of Africa reflects an adult European’s concern with bringing agricultural and social order to Africa’s wilderness, and paradoxically having that very wildness and freedom tame the European.  West with the Night is a much more interesting tale of growing up African, possessing that sense of limitless freedom from the very start.  Karen von Blixen is often held up as a bit of a feminist icon, but to these eyes she seems to spend more time struggling than achieving.  Beryl Markham, on the other hand, easily gains access to male-dominated roles both in the native and European realms.  She acts with easy confidence and never agonises over her choices nor the demanding situations that sometimes result.  Markham’s winning attitude and technical competence (whether in horse training or pilotage) seem to have won her de facto equality amongst her male peers; unlike von Blixen, it is a thing already attained, not some future status to strive for.

Markham's aircraft after crash-landing

For gentlemen, this is part and parcel of its charm; West with the Night is Out of Africa for men.  Instead of being filled with the latter’s agricultural drudgery and melancholy tone, Markham’s tale is hopeful and confident, featuring adventures with native villagers, wild predators, and superior airmanship.  It does turn reflective and melancholy at times, but it is not a defining feature of the story.

I will relate one personal anecdote which ought to underscore my appreciation for this work:  I had initially obtained a copy via the public library, and long before the pages on the final chapters had been turned, I had resolved to purchase it.

Recommendation: Buy

NOTE: I’ve borrowed Bob Tarantino‘s Buy/Borrow/Avoid rating system, and I should take a moment to explain my rendition of it.

Buys are well-crafted and arresting books which I judge to have enduring usefulness as works of reference, or lasting appeal upon re-reading.  I would consider keeping these on my bookshelf for at least a decade, if not more.

Borrows are engaging books which can not sustain interest in successive readings, or will otherwise not survive a ten-year span on my bookshelf.  This may be due to choice of subject matter, or a narrowly contemporary topicality soon overtaken by events, and so on.

Avoids are books whose authors or publishers fail in their primary purpose, to produce a well-crafted, appealing work of literature.

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