Aviator and nonconformist Beryl Markham shines in Circling the Sun


Lean Into Aviation (3)It is rare a writer can both mesmerize and make you viscerally feel the subject, arousing both grief and glorification in a life explained. Paula McLain achieves this in Circling the Sun which drew me back to visit a dear old friend from the bookshelf. She weaves a tapestry of Africa, Edwardian colonialism and aviation through the life and times of aviator Beryl Markham, who wrote the equally captivating West With the Night.

I first met Beryl Markham through her book in the 1980s. What attracted me to the little volume was Markham’s picture in an aviator’s helmet on the cover and the intriguing picture on the back of her aircraft, nose buried in the ground and tail high in the air like a sentinel in the flat Nova Scotia countryside. To some, it would have been an ignominious end to a great feat. Markham, after all, was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic East to West and the first person to make it nonstop between England and North America. She drew great acclaim for her flight, the more difficult task of flying between Continents and struggling against the winds that cross the planet from west to east.

She instantly captivated me with her lyric writing, her feats as a freelance pilot slogging alone through the star-studded African skies. Her magical descriptions of the great continent were so clear you thought could reach out and touch them. Since our first introduction, I’ve read Markham’s book many times understanding well why Ernest Hemingway withered with shame in her presence.

“I was simply a carpenter with words picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen,” he wrote of Markham’s book to his editor Maxwell Perkins.

That is exactly how I felt but I was but a mere journalist with grand aspirations of being a real writer. While Hemingway and I have never gotten along, much like my struggle with Faulkner’s works, Markham was a writer that painted beautiful pictures in my head by stringing together similes and metaphors born perfectly the instant you read them. So, too, does McLain.

I approached McLain’s Circling the Sun with trepidation, excited that here was a kindred spirit. But, at the same time, I feared that her work would not live up to Markham’s magic. Still, I admired and envied her daring and ability to take the next step, wrapping Markham’s story into a novel that equaled the masterwork itself.

I needn’t have worried. She seemed to channel Markham in her descriptions of Africa and the expats that made up Markham’s world. She captures so well this free spirit chafing at the rigors of a conventional Edwardian life. McLain makes you feel Markham’s frustration and impatience deep down in your gut. Viewed through the prism of the present, those societal restrictions seem so incredibly silly making it hard to connect to that world. But McLain surpasses Markham in her ability to make you understand a thankfully bygone era.

I’ve not felt that connection since reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. Brittain was Markham’s contemporary and was like-minded in her frustrations with the conventions that barred a woman from college or for daring to think beyond home and hearth. Her chronicle of the lost generation of World War I is as beautiful and gut wrenching as McLain’s story of Markham.

They both colored my understanding of the women I knew as grandmother, making my connection to their world finally personal. Markham, Brittain, and now, McLain made me wish I could ask what their aspirations had been and if they longed for more than marriage and children. I know that my mother’s mother was frustrated that she had to quit school after the eighth grade. They both were powerful intellects pushing us to achieve ever more in life and perhaps were the inspiration for my own unorthodox life. Perhaps that is why I was so deeply touched by their books.

While West With The Night is an aviator’s book, Circling the Sun only licks around the edges of Markham’s role in the air like a serpent’s tongue sniffing the breeze. Instead, it chronicles her wild upbringing in Kenya where she learned her craft as a horse trainer from her father and became the first woman trainer in the world. Famous characters waft in and out of the story including Isak Dinesen who made famous Denys Finch-Hatton and Berkley Cole in her Out of Africa. McLain launches them fully formed, rounding them out as individual people and drawing you in as though their long lost charisma was emanating from the page. She helps you understand how deeply they touched Markham’s life even as their own lives flared and then were lost in their own dying light, leaving Markham to struggle on.

But it is the title that best describes Markham’s and Dinesen’s unapologetic lives, defying social mores so that they could survive as themselves, not mere shadows of what might have been. It describes in detail the costs of such survival and how often they were burned only to rise again Phoenix-like from the ashes of their choices that were otherwise defined as scandals by those around them.

These two books – Circling the Sun and West With The Night – offer a sweeping history of an extraordinary woman and her times. More importantly, they help us to connect to a spirit too big for those times.