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West With the Night ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction

This exceptionally beautiful book is the memoir of renowned Kenyan aviatrix Beryl Markham.  It has engendered much controversy over whether Markham herself wrote the book.  It now appears to be pretty reliably proven that her third husband, the writer Raoul Schumacher, was the author.  However, the story is still that of Beryl Markham and it is the extraordinary story of a remarkable woman.

In the first half of the book she tells about her experiences growing up on a farm in Njaro, Kenya.  From the adventures of her dog Buller, who fought boars and leopards, to her own experiences hunting with Nandi tribesmen, on to encounters with mad horses & not quite domesticated lions, this section is the equal of, if not superior to, Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa.  (In fact, in it's elegiac evocation of a way of life disappearing before the author's eyes, it reminded me of nothing so much as the wonderful  How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn.)

Then there's a brief interlude while she trains race horses after her father's farm fails & he leaves the country.  Here she relates the thrilling tale of a race between a horse, Wild Child, with bad legs and another horse that she had trained, Wrack, but that was taken away from her because of her lack of experience.  The description of the race is as good as anything I've ever read.

Finally, Tom Black teaches her to fly & she befriends men like Bror Blixen & Dennis Finch-Hatton (Dinesen's husband and her lover respectively). The deft & understated comedic touch that is displayed throughout the book is evident in this passage about a Kenyan landing strip:

    A high wire fence surrounds the aerodrome-a wire fence and then a deep ditch.  Where is there
    another aerodrome fenced against wild animals?  Zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, eland--at night they lurk
    about the tall barrier staring with curious wild eyes into that flat field, feeling cheated.

    They are well out of it, for themselves and for me.  It would be a hard fate to go down in the
    memory of one's friends as having been tripped up by a wandering zebra.  'Tried to take off and hit
    a zebra!'  It lacks even the dignity of crashing into an anthill

After several years scouting for elephants by air & flying medical supplies around, she heads to England and a friend stakes her in a 1936 effort to be the first pilot to fly solo from England to New York non-stop.  Though she crash landed in Nova Scotia & couldn't make it to New York, she was still the first person to make the solo flight from England to North America non-stop.

Each of the three sections is united by one unique thread, Markham's love : of Africa; horses; & flying.  Her passion shines through regardless of who the actual author may have been.

Dorothy Judd's Review:

West with the Night by Beryl Markham (or her husband as the case may be) is
an outstanding example of poetic prose. Based on my sketchy knowledge of
Beryl Markham, the cover photo, and the title, I expected a  factual account
of aviation and a transatlantic flight. While the book does, in fact, cover
 these, it is the brilliant descriptions of people, places, and animals that
captivated me.

Being informed that Beryl Markham probably did not herself write the book
lessened my enjoyment of it as it lost the power of a first person account.
However, the masterful descriptions stand on their own.
If you read nothing else, read the chapter entitled "Royal Exile" for an
achingly beautiful trip into the spirit of a horse!

Here are some of my favorite examples of  use of language:

*(in the future it will be discovered) .that all the science of flying  has been captured in the breadth on an instrument board, but not the religion of it.
*human beings drew from Mr. Darwin's lottery of evolution both the winning ticket and the stub to match it.
*Even in Africa, the elephant is as anomalous as the Cro-Magnon Man might be shooting a round of golf at Saint Andrews in Scotland

Grade: B+


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Author and Hero in West With the Night (Robert Viking O'Brien in The Journal of African Travel-Writing)
    -Beryl Markham (short bio)

  If you liked West with the Night, try:

  Boyd, William
      -An Ice-Cream War

  Dinesen, Isaak
      -Out of Africa

  Fox, James
      -White Mischief : The Murder of Lord Erroll

  Watkins, Paul
      -In the Blue Light of African Dreams

  Watson, Lyall
      -Lightning Bird : The Story of One Man's Journey into Africa's Past

  Wood, Barbara
      -Green City in the Sun