TBT Book Review – West with the Night

Now that my old book review site is gone forever, I will occasionally post old book reviews here, to give them new life. For my first #TBT Book Review, I celebrate Women’s History Month with a review of West with the Night, by Beryl Markham, the first female commercial pilot.

An early pioneer in aviation, Beryl Markham (1902-1986) is best known as the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from London to Nova Scotia, the reverse of the trip Amelia Earhart had made four years earlier. Markham achieved fame also as the first female commercial pilot, flying trade and communication routes in eastern Africa.

West with the Night, by Beryl Markham, relates this fascinating woman’s life, from her childhood on a farm in Njoro, Kenya, to her return to Africa following her historic flight. While West with the Night was published in 1945, it is still today considered one of the best descriptions of life in Kenya in the early 20th century. The prose descriptions of both the landscape and the lifestyle evoked the following reaction in Ernest Hemmingway:

“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.”

Markham’s father raised and trained horses for the Nairobi racetracks. In her early teenage years, Markham showed a great talent herself for training horses and became a well-known trainer in her early twenties. The following passage is from her account of her journey away from her father’s farm in Njoro, towards Molo, where she hoped to expand her training abilities:

“We left before dawn, so that when the hills again took shape Njoro was gone, disappeared with the last impotent scowl of night. The farm was gone – its whirling mills, its fields and paddocks, its wagons and its roaring Dutchmen. Otieno and Toombo were gone, my new mirror, my new hut with the cedar shingles – all these were behind me, not like part of a life, but like a whole life lived and ended.”

West with the Night is not a chronological autobiography as much as it is a collection of episodic recollections and meditations on Markham’s past. For instance, there is no account of her brief marriage, the move to England with her husband, and the birth of her son. West with the Night focuses on Markham’s life in Africa and her career path from horse trainer to commercial pilot, to transatlantic solo flight. The elegance of the passages describing the first days of her flight training bring you inside the cockpit with her and her instructor, Tom Black:

“When you can see the branches of trees from a cockpit, and the shape of rocks no bigger than your own hands, and places where grass thing against sand and becomes yellow, and watch the blow of wind on leaves, you are too close. You are so close that thought is a slow process, useless to you now – even if you can think.

The sound of our propeller got trapped between a wall of rock and the plane before Tom straightened in his seat and took the controls.

He banked sharply, dusting the trees and rock with blue exhaust. He put the nose of the Gipsy down and swung her deep into the valley while her shadow rode close on the hill. He lost altitude until the valley was flat. He climbed in spirals until we were high abovethe Ngong Hills, and then he went over them and home.

It was all so simple.”

Many historians also believe the book was written not by her, but by her third husband, Raoul Schumacher, who was a writer and journalist, which is an extremely dismissive and patriarchal suggestion. No matter which you believe was the actual author of West with the Night, it is a must-read for lovers of history and adventure.

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