I first read Beryl Markham’s West with the Night when I was 15 or 16. I had an obsession with bush pilots and read anything I could find about them. West with the Night caught my attention because it was the autobiography of a bush pilot in Africa. Picking it up again after many years I was struck by all the subtleties of the book that I missed as a teenager.
Markham’s book was first published in 1942 and focuses on her life growing up in British East Africa (which will become Kenya). One of the things I was struck by is that although I read it originally for the flying parts there is actually not as much about flying in Africa as one might expect. The focus is on her growing up which was still pretty amazing. The book is replete with stories of her as a child hunting warthogs with members of the Nandi tribe with spears or of her dog being snatched from her bedroom by a leopard. When her fathers farm fails after a sever drought he leaves for Peru and Beryl goes on to become a racehorse trainer. After meeting Denys Finch Hatton, the pilot and big game hunter, (who’s name might sound familiar to anyone who has read Karen Blixen aka Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa) Markham was inspired to learn how to fly and eventually set up her own bush pilot business. In 1936 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic east to west (although she crash landed short of her goal of reaching New York City).
The tone of the book is very lyrical on the verge of poetic. This lends itself to the almost mystical sense of place she give British East Africa. It also makes it a pleasure to read simply for the text. The book is also a window on life in the colony of British East Africa between the World Wars. Although she never confronts it specifically in the book there is a constant undercurrent of the effects of colonialism on the black population and the sexism she faced in her efforts as both a racehorse trainer and later a pilot. That said her presentations of native Africans are sometimes paternalistic and lean heavily towards the “noble savage.” However for their time her views were probably quite liberal. One controversy that has come up is that West with the Night was actually ghost written by her third husband Raoul Schumacher. However just as many have come forward to defend Markham’s authorship. The evidence pro or con is pretty circumstantial so I’ll leave that controversy to those who like literary who-wrote-its and go on enjoying the book. And I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in African history, English colonial history, and lovers of beautifully written prose in general. Also as you might guess it’s a good read alike for Out of Africa.