West With the Night
by Beryl Markham
April 2004 book review (2 of 3)
by Collie Collier
If you're looking for excitement and adventure in your reading,
Beryl Markham's autobiography West with the Night is
an excellent choice. An English aristocrat raised in Africa,
her life reads like a blood-stirring adventure novel. The
fascinating adventure stories never stop, almost dancing from
exploit to dangerous, hair-raising exploit.
From her childhood in Africa in the very early years of the
20th century, through her successful solo flight across the
Atlantic from east to west -- the first ever such flight --
they are all lovingly described vignettes of extraordinary
In some ways, however, the book is frustratingly
incomplete. What happened to Arab Ruta, her loyal native childhood
friend? What did Beryl do with her beloved horse, Pegasus, while
she was learning to fly airplanes? Did she have any siblings,
lovers, husbands, children? What of her father -- what happened
What of her life after the daring and dangerous trans-Atlantic
journey? Her pioneering flight occurred in 1936, but the book
was written in 1942, after all. How does someone who appears so
closely attuned to the land, the people, the animals, the very
world she was inextricably entwined with... end up working almost
obsessively in the (then) somewhat isolating world of machinery
and flight? The reader is left wishing for more, wondering how
things happened; where such a complex personality ended up.
In other ways it makes perfect sense, though, I think. Her
world, the Africa of that time, was always changing, always in
turmoil, struggling to deal with the friction of colonization. She
mentions never being able to go home almost wistfully, and on
more than one occasion.
Once she writes of a group of flyers drinking a toast to
Africa before heading off for Europe for a short visit -- a
toast to an Africa already gone, since it would be irrevocably
changed before they could return.
When change is an inescapable constant, memory must fill
in as the thread of consistency weaving together a life and
a personality from the scattered anecdotes which make up a
person. And yet, we know now even memory itself is nothing more
than chemical reactions within the brain, forming a personally
How fragile and acrobatic must one's worldview be, in order
to survive emotionally, when one knows a journey of only a month
will force that worldview to change yet again? How strong must
one's personality become, how indomitable the spirit, in order
to weather the battering of constant change?
It is that search for self, I believe, which made the book so
compelling. Markham's life, as described in the book, was full
of contradictions and difficulties. As a white girl in Africa
and a woman in a man's society, she describes rising to these
challenges initially without really thinking about it. Slowly,
though, you can feel her growing resentment at having always to
prove herself as being not just as good as the men, but better,
in order to be accepted.
As a child she hunts unselfconsciously with the Murani
men, even though only men are supposed to hunt. With sparsely
expressive words she describes the feelings, the emotions,
the sensations of the three humans and their dogs unflinchingly
facing charging lion and warthog when armed only with spears;
of her heading off alone to track her hunting dog after being
reassured by one of the badly injured men he could walk home
unaccompanied; of sitting next to the slain warthog with her
courageous dog's bleeding body as darkness falls and the hunting
creatures of the night start to call.
There is no feeling of being 'lesser' here -- of the girl child
really understanding or caring about the gender challenge of the
boy's spear she fearlessly carries and successfully wields.
Her growing dissatisfaction with the gender role she sees no
use for, which others wish to force on her, is almost accidentally
detailed in the story of the horse race, told with sensual verbal
brushstrokes of emotion.
Her frustration at having an extremely promising young colt
taken from her by the owner, due to the whispering machinations
of another trainer; the delicate, transitory artistry of equine
flesh and bone in motion; the blanking-out of sound by the numbing
effect of surpassing emotion, followed by the almost blasé
relief of success -- within the one story is contained a whole
economy of emotion and struggle to simply be who one truly is,
despite the limiting desires of others.
It is this economy of her exploration of others which suggests
so strongly the constant tension of her own inner exploration,
of what appears to be her spirit's insistence on the independent,
No lovers, no husbands nor children, are mentioned as
such. Those few people who are related in the stories are painted
in as anecdotally, as iconically, as she paints the landscape
of Africa itself -- as if she expects them to change utterly as
well, once she's departed their presence for any length of time
It is herein, I believe, we find the clue to her
motivation in moving so thoroughly over to the world of
flight and machinery. She herself writes movingly of the tiny,
self-sufficient, enclosed world of the cockpit at night, while in
flight. Life narrows down to very simple things at that time --
there is the plane, and the flyer herself.
The machine does not judge her by her sex; it is incapable of
doing so. It demands merely a strong spirit, training, and skill,
which she provides in single-minded, dedicated abundance. In
return it gives her freedom -- the freedom to go where she
wishes, to be who and what she wants to be, to rise above the
trammeling bonds of a clingy, demanding, chafing society. The
jobs she takes require, on the whole, the accomplishment of clear,
straightforward goals -- that she fly well, or die.
There is no greater freedom, no deeper honesty I know than
that -- and no better time to examine one's soul than when one
is utterly alone and isolated, in the night.
While writing this review I did a little research, and
discovered several interesting things. Beryl Markham
was married three times, was pregnant at least once,
traveled extensively throughout her life, and had far more dangerous exploits than she relates
in her book.
There's also a long-standing argument, thoughtfully reviewed
here and interestingly discussed (in
passing) here, about who exactly wrote West With
the Night -- was it her, her third husband, or the two of
them working together?
In the end I don't think it matters. What's important to me
is the empathy and self-understanding one can find, following
her through the literary window she provides into a complex,
questioning, difficult, and ever-changing life.
[Links to text-only versions of the above articles,
should any of them die:
"far more dangerous exploits"
"thoughtfully reviewed here"
"interestingly discussed here"]
It seems her struggle to find her true self, in the midst
of constant transformation and social pressure all about her,
endured throughout her life. She mentions Arab Ruta's words,
of how he traveled extensively all over Africa before returning
home, yet found himself not much the wiser for it; of his finding
wisdom more in obedience to his heart than in constant travel.
Under such circumstances, how else could she react except
strongly (or "willfully" to her culture's eyes), when her
heart insisted she be true to her Self? Is it surprising she,
an "Other" of her society, should freely identify more with the
colonized natives than with a culture which demanded obedience
and passivity of her? She is not politically correct -- not even
for her own time.
As Beryl herself noted, "No human pursuit achieves dignity
unless it can be called work, and when you can experience a
physical loneliness for the tools of your trade, you see that
the other things -- the experiments, the irrelevant vocations,
the vanities you used to hold -- were false to you."
Her "work" changed several times through her life: hunter,
horse breeder and trainer, wife and mother, commercial and bush
pilot, celebrity, farmer... perhaps writer? To repeatedly take
on challenging new roles with flair and courage is a work in
and of itself.
It is personally encouraging to find someone who struggled
indomitably to speak their heart with simplicity and honesty,
to be who they truly were, despite the constant, sometimes
ungentle pressure of social conformity. The bright spark of
such determination provides a guiding light to those who also
wish to be more than is expected of them, to find at the end
of their journeys that perhaps wisdom or happiness has indeed
finally lodged in their souls.