West with the Night by Beryl Markham
This post is the first in a series exploring women’s use of memoir and autobiography to tell their stories throughout the 20th century. Stay tuned for reviews of further remarkable, mundane, beautiful, and ordinary stories of womanhood in the last century.
Beryl Markham’s West with the Night was one of those books that stalked me for about three years before I eventually bought, read, and loved it. It seemed every used book store I went into had a copy, all with the same green and white cover prominently featuring Markham in her aviatrix best, staring intrepidly off into the distance and daring you to buy the book.
Alas, I did not. I cannot emphasize enough how you should not follow my example. Hie thee hence to your nearest used book store and buy this book. The shop will undoubtedly have a copy—they all seem to for some reason.
West is Beryl Markham’s autobiography, telling the tale of her time growing up in colonial Africa and her subsequent careers as a thoroughbred horse trainer and then as a record-making female pilot in the early days of aviation. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west—thus the title, West with the Night.
In short, I highly, highly recommend West. Whether you’re looking for a beautiful travel memoir or a fascinating text about the early days of aviation or a thoughtful look back at the waning days of British colonial rule in Kenya, West has you covered. In fact, Markham covers so much ground its incredible to believe that this was all one life—and, in fact, only part of one remarkable life.
The only downfall of the book is that, almost since publication, the authorship of West has been contested. “How is it possible to bring order out of memory?” asks Markham on the first page of her memoir and, apparently, the fact that she was able to do so with such fluency and “so marvelously well,” as Hemingway had it, struck her critics as impossible.
I’m inclined to take feminist umbrage at this notion (particularly since credit for the book is often given to her third husband Raoul Schumacher—evidently such a beautiful book could be written, just not by Markham herself), but honestly the authorship question almost doesn’t matter once you start reading. Less than two pages in you’ll realize that the book is just so well-written that you don’t care who wrote it as long as it was written and you get to enjoy it.
So settle in for a fantastic journey told using the most evocative and exciting prose available. Markham lived one of those lives that seem too packed with historic import and action to be real, but hers was and, happily for us, it’s all preserved in West with the Night.