Beryl Markham became the first woman to fly east to west across the Atlantic. She made her record setting 21-hour and 25-minute flight over the 4th and 5th of September, 1936. Her book West with the Night tells that tale, but if you are looking for a long detailed account of the flight in the 293 pages of her book you may come away disappointed. The aforementioned flight only occupies the next to the last chapter of the book. However, don’t let that dissuade you from cracking open the book and letting it draw you in.
She has a descriptive way of writing that I have only seen on occasion. She paints the picture and conveys the emotions and thoughts of the events so vividly you can see and feel yourself there. After reading her book, Ernest Hemingway wrote his editor and said: “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer . . . [She] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers . . . It is really a bloody wonderful book.”
She opens the book describing a flight in 1935 from Nairobi to Nungwe, 350 miles across nothing, in the middle of the night after answering a call at one in the morning, to deliver a canister of oxygen to a dying man. Is flying over what you consider inhospitable terrain in the dark, with your GPS navigation, radio contact with Air Traffic Control, a modern engine monitor, and a paved runway at your journeys end, beyond your risk tolerance? Think of taking off by the light of flares along a dirt runway and departing into the African night, finding your way across the blackness, looking for the lights somewhere on the horizon and the flares marking the runway.
I mentioned the way Beryl “paints” with words. Have you ever described starting your plane like this? Her friend took hold of the prop to hand prop it.
“He swings hard. A splutter, a strangled cough from the engine like the premature stirring of a sleep-slugged labourer. In the cockpit I push gently on the throttle, easing it forward, rousing the motor, feeding it, soothing it.”
What about describing a meal in a dirty brothel on the outskirts of Benghazi, the only place where a room could be found?
“Blix produced a bottle of white wine that some Italian soldier had left and his successors had overlooked. We drank the wine out of enamel cups and ate the soup and the cold salmon, fighting a war of attrition against the cockroaches while the meal progressed.”
Of course, if you only picked up the book to read about flying you could skip chapters 3-13, but you would miss her incredible and highly entertaining stories of growing up in East Africa in the early 1900’s.
The book is an easy read that is difficult to put down. If you are into audio books, the audio version is well read by Anna Fields, with just the right inflections in her voice and pitch or accent as you listen to the voice of Beryl or her many friends and acquaintances. Listening to the emotion in her voice as she describes a horse race where Wise Child who she had trained is going up against Wrack who she had also trained, you will be on the edge of your seat.
So, give the book a chance, you won’t regret it. It is available on Amazon, Audible, and likely at your local library. (Yes, there are still libraries….)