Bookmarks with Craig Storti: West with the Night by Beryl Markham

Sep 18, 2022

“CraigDid you read Beryl Markham’s book?’ a writer asks. ‘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 OK pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.’

Your Book Review Editor feels obliged to begin this column with a confession: this month’s book selection is a bit of self-indulgence, not intentionally so, mind you, but indulgent nonetheless. Let me explain. I first read Beryl Markham’s West with the Night perhaps 30 years ago, loved it, and eventually forgot about it. Then, when it was brought to my attention recently, I thought it would be a great book for this column and also looked forward to rediscovering it. So I picked it up again, only to realize it’s not quite as cross-cultural as I had remembered. What I had remembered is that it was about an English girl growing up on a farm in Kenya in the 1920s, and I guess I just assumed it had to be cross-cultural.

I had all but decided it would not really work for my SIETAR column, when I thought: Wait a minute. Are you really going to pass up the chance to introduce several hundred people to a true classic because you’re worried it’s not quite cross-cultural enough? Beryl deserves better than that

While West with the Night is not self-consciously cross-cultural, it is the story of the daughter of an English colonial farmer’s early years in Africa. Only four when her father took her to Kenya, Markham did not ever know her birth culture and thus had no basis for comparing it with Kenyan culture. That said, she is a colonist in another people’s land and knows she is different, not African, at least not in the way Kenyans are. She has a perspective on their culture, in short, that the locals do not, and that makes for rewarding insights.

Here is an example:

Competitors in conquest have overlooked the vital soul of Africa herself, from which emanates the true resistance to conquest…. Africa is of an ancient age, and the blood of many of her peoples is as venerable and as chaste as truth. What upstart race, sprung from some recent, callow century to arm itself with steel and boastfulness, can match in purity the blood of a single Masai Murani whose heritage may have stemmed not far from Eden?

The appeal of this book is twofold: the style and the content. While the content is full of wonders, the style is ultimately what sets it apart. The word lyrical is usually used to describe this kind of writing, prose that is full of poetry, and while that word will do, the style is not ostentatious. It is lush in places, to be sure, but without being overwritten. Here, for example, is Markham’s description of Toombo’s smile: ‘Toombo’s grin spread over his wide face like a ripple on a pond…. He grins until there is no more room for both the grin and his eyes, so his eyes disappear.’ Later she describes a character whose face is so striking that it cannot be looked at but must be ‘looked into.’ Every page has a phrase or sentence or an entire paragraph that simply cannot be improved upon.

Here is another indelible example:

A telegraph line followed the rails to Kisumu, or it was intended that one should. The posts were there. And the wire too, but rhino take sensual and sadistic pleasure in scratching their great hulks against telegraph posts, and any baboon worthy of his salt cannot resist swinging from suspended wires. Often a herd of giraffe found it expedient to cross the railroad tracks, but would not condescend to bow to the elevated metal strands that proclaimed the White Man’s mandate over their feeding grounds. As a result, many telegrams enroute from Mombasa to Kisumu, or the other way around, were intercepted, their cryptic dots and dashes frozen in a festoon of golden wire hanging from one or another of the longest necks in Africa.

The book is the story of a child who grew to womanhood on a farm where her father grew corn, was a miller of corn, and also raised thorough bred race horses. In time Markham herself became a horse trainer. Her life changed forever when she met a man one day trying to restart his car on a dusty African road, a man who spoke to her of airplanes. She eventually became one of Africa’s first female aviators.

And the content. It’s an embarrassment of riches: a lion attack in childhood, the birth of the foal Pegasus, the perilous warthog hunt with her dog Buller and two young Masai men, the horse race between Wrack and Wise Child, the search for a lost aviator, a harrowing encounter with a massive bull elephant, the rescue of Baron von Blixen from an impossibly inadequate runway. And the book ends with the nail-biting story of Markham’s contribution to aviation history.

Start reading and in no time you won’t care if this book is cross-cultural or not. You’ll be too worried about what that warthog is going to do to Buller. And the photo on the back, by the way, is itself worth the price of the book.

Oh. And the name of that writer we quoted at the top, sheepishly comparing himself to Markham? Ernest Hemingway.