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Beats Hemingway Hands Down
am 25. Juni 2000
I wasn't reading about Beryl Markham when I first learned of West With the Night. I was reading about Hemingway, a writer who is much better known and more admired than Markham, but to my way of thinking, with little reason. Apparently, Hemingway so admired this book that he was moved to the point of shame to know that he too was called a writer.
Stunningly evocative of life in East Africa in the early part of the 20th Century, West With the Night carries the reader directly into Markham's life. If there was a person lucky enough to have truly lived more than Markham lived, we might in fact have to turn to Hemingway to find him. Having broken all stereotypes before they were known as stereotypes, Markham did 80 years ago what few women today would even imagine. Raised by her widower father, Markham was the only white child within 200 miles in any direction. Under the tutelage of native hunters, she learned to face down lions and elephants, and went on to become a professional horse trainer. But flying was her true calling. Learning the geography of the cockpit from no less an instructor than Tom Black, one of England's best-known bush pilots and an aviator who is still revered, Markham soon became the only woman pilot in East Africa, delivering everything from the mundane (gin for the white hunters) to the life-saving (tanks of oxygen for malaria victims).
Throughout the book, we are treated to some of the most vivid descriptions of an Africa that is long gone. Curiously missing, however, is any sense of her love interests as she grew and matured. We come close when we learn of her affection for Tom Black, but the affection feels brotherly in nature. And, then again, when she partakes of a transcontinental adventure with the dashing Baron von Blixen---one of the legendary characters of colonial Africa--we're never certain if passion played a part. Perhaps the absence of a love interest is a reflection of the more genteel times in which the book was written, or perhaps her true love was Africa and the sense of being truly alive that such a place seems to have imparted to every day of Beryl Markham's life.
But in fact, Markham is still alive--in a way. You cannot help but sense her presence after the first chapter. West With the Night is that good.