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West With the Night by Beryl Markham

“A lighted ship- the daybreak- some steep cliffs standing in the sea. The meaning of these will never change for pilots. If one day an ocean can be flown within an hour, if men can build a plane that so masters time, the sight of land will be no less welcome to the steersman of that fantastic craft. He will have cheated laws that the cunning of science has taught him how to cheat, and he will feel his guilt and be eager for the sanctuary of the soil.”

An amazingly free spirited woman, Beryl Markham was a bush pilot, horse breeder/trainer, and the first person to fly across the Atlantic from East to West. She is also the author of her own memoir of growing up in East Africa, and piloting experiences flying from remote corner to remote corner of Africa.  She wrote West with the Night in the early 1940s, but it disappeared from publication after just a few years.  A reference to the book was discovered in Earnest Hemingway’s letters and memoirs, and after some research, this book was re-released in the 1980s. It has been enjoyed by new readers ever since.

Image result for beryl markhamThe book meanders through time in a very alluring way, making it feel like the author is speaking directly to you of her childhood and early adult memories.  From being attacked by a lion, hunting with Murani warriors, horse training, and “in-air” musings about the changing way of life and landscape of Africa from early 1900s to 1940s, she had contact with equally fascinating people. The book is a snapshot in time of Africa as Markham experienced it.  Although salacious details are prudently left out, many of the names of other pilots and adventurers are easily recognized. A small amount of research or familiarity with ‘Out of Africa’ will provide a jolt of recognition of some key names of the time, and cements the impression that Markham operated under her own principles, not those of western societal dictates of the time, nor of patriarchal tribal dictates within Africa.  Acceptance and respect as an equal – pilot, horse trainer and hunter, by  men of European and African descent is an amazing feat. Even  Hemingway gave her begrudging respect and acceptance as an author, although he let it be known he did not like her personally.

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, “West with the Night”? I knew her fairly well in Africa … 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 some times making an okay pig pen. But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade b—, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, … are absolutely true. So, you have to take as truth the early stuff about when she was a child which is absolutely superb… I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody, wonderful book.” – Hemingway

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West With the Night is entertaining as an early to mid-century historical, fresh voice on Africa. A great read, this book will provide plenty of discussion points for your book club.

Happy Reading!

– Kristin

PS  There are a number of beautiful passages and words of wisdom in this book. Such that the authorship has been questioned as possibly being her third husband.  I really could care less, the stories are fact checked as true and it is a great book. I will share a few quotes and passages that I highlighted as I read.  Let me know what you think in the comments. Would love to hear your thoughts.

“After that, work and hope. But never hope more than you work.”

“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep – leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late.”

Hodi – Though the single Swahili word says I am here and the echo of it say Am I welcome…Hodi- we who have used it know it would scorch the lips of a liar and make a cinder of a thief’s tongue. It is a gentle word, a word of honor, asking an answer gently. And there is an answer.”

“The Greeks of Cyrenaica called it Hesperides, Ptolemy the Third was in love with his wife, so called it Berenice. I don’t know who changed it to Benghazi, but this is not the first act of vandalism the old city has suffered… Benghazi sprawls in the path of war. Mars kicks the little city to earth and it rises again, stubbornly, and is reduced again, but not for long. It is a small city with a soul – a grubby soul, perhaps, but cities with souls seldom die…Once it lived on ivory brought by caravan across the desert … now it deals in duller stuff – or deals in nothing, waiting for another war to pass, knowing that in reality it has no function except to provide hostelry for armies on the march.”

“In Africa people learn to serve each other. They live on credit balances of little favours that they give and may, one day, ask to have returned. In any country almost empty of men, ‘love thy neighbour’ is less a pious injunction than a rule for survival. If you meet one in trouble, you stop – another time he may stop for you.” (I left the British spellings)

“A lighted ship- the daybreak- some steep cliffs standing in the sea. The meaning of these will never change for pilots. If one day an ocean can be flown within an hour, if men can build a plane that so masters time, the sight of land will be no less welcome to the steersman of that fantastic craft. He will have cheated laws that the cunning of science has taught him how to cheat, and he will feel his guilt and be eager for the sanctuary of the soil.”

All quotes (except Hemingway’s) are attributed to Beryl Markham in West With The Night.

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