Tag Archive | Beryl Markham

Book Review: Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

Beryl Markham may be the most incredible woman you have never heard of.  Of, if you have read this blog for a while, you may remember that I blogged about her memoir a couple of years ago.

Markham lived an incredible life, as the first woman licensed race horse trainer.  She was also the first woman bush pilot in Africa.  And the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from East to West.

Circling the Sun

This historical novel details Markham’s life from childhood to the time of her momentous flight.  Paula McLain researched her life and told the story that many have probably never heard of.

Markham had a significant amount of tragedy in her personal life.  She was born in England but her parents moved to Africa to find their fortune when she was a young child.  Her mother wasn’t happy there, and abandoned her at the age of 5, leaving Africa to return to England with her brother; Beryl and her father remained there on the ranch he had founded.

Her father’s bankruptcy in her teens was the end of her sheltered upbringing; she chose to get married in order to be able to remain near her childhood home, but her husband was a drunk, and both physically and emotionally abusive.  He did not allow her a divorce for years, and when he finally granted it, she was financially ruined. Markham’s second marriage was a disaster too; her second husband essentially used his wealth and power to keep her son from her, while trying to smear her reputation in the process.  She had returned to England with him to have her son, but eventually went back to Africa when she divorced, seeing her son only sporadically.

She had a number of affairs which significantly damaged her reputation, both real and some potentially only errant rumors – either way they affected her standing in society.  According to the novel Beryl found true love in the arms of a man named Denys Finch Hatton, who had a long and committed relationship with a woman whom Beryl also had a lasting friendship with.  Complicated…

After her second divorce and return to Africa, she rebuilt her life training race horses and enjoyed a measure of success that was rare for a woman of the time.  She was introduced to people who were on the forefront of aviation and set her mind to learning to fly.  Sadly, she experienced the death of several close friends in air crashes, including her beloved long-term lover Denys.  She was supposed to go with him that day but stayed home after a close friend and fellow pilot allegedly had a premonition and urged her not to go.  The death impacted her deeply.

McLain tells the story fluidly, and her character development is superb.  Her descriptions of the African landscape show the reader what it would have been like to live in Africa in the nineteen teens, twenties and thirties.  Unlike Markham’s own memoir, West with the Night, which deals almost exclusively with Markham’s professional exploits, Circling the Sun tells the story of the Markham’s personal life in a way that is candid yet non-judgmental.

Markham lived on her own terms, but it was not without consequences.  It was a well written novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

4 stars.

Book Review: West with the Night

I had never heard of Beryl Markham before, so when this audio-book popped up on the library website, I was intrigued.  Markham was the first female to do a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean from East to West – this flight was much harder than the other direction due to the strong headwinds.  She accomplished this feat on September 4, 1936, at the age of 31.

Markham’s life was amazing in many other ways.  Born in England, her family moved to Kenya when she was four years old, and she spent her childhood among lions and other African wildlife, hunting boar, and riding the racehorses her father trained.

As an adult, she moved into her father’s occupation of racehorse training, and became a celebrated trainer in Kenya.  She also learned to fly planes, and became the first female bush pilot in Africa, flying scouting missions for hunting parties as well as providing transportation around a country with few usable roads.

The book was published in 1942, and is a memoir of her life, from early childhood through her amazing solo flight.  Her writing evokes the images of life in rural Africa; you feel as if you are actually in that plane with her, looking down on the elephants and zebra below.  Her character development is superb – the cast from her life was a unique and motley crew.

Markham is a fantastic writer, but I do wish that she had spent a little more time on her Trans-Atlantic flight.  It is really only given a little bit of time at the very end of the book.  Beyond that, my only gripe would be that the audio-book reader had a bit of a monotone reading voice, which was a distraction at first.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly, learning about a strong woman and an important historical figure.  She broke barriers in a world that didn’t give women a lot of chances to do amazing things; she single-handedly did several.

If you have a chance to read it, I hope you will.  If you have already, please let me know what you thought!