West with the Night, by Beryl Markham, is a rip-roaring, classic adventure memoir, often overlooked yet accompanied by a mystery that holds both Markham and her book in its grip.The book began by confronting me with a delicious shock in time and space. I was transported to the Kenyan outback of a hundred years ago, where a skinny, straw-blonde and amazingly gutsy, daring eight-year-old is pursuing adventure with her native friends and her indomitable, brave, battle-scarred, faithful and impressively ugly dog, Buller.
West with the Night distinguishes Beryl Markham as an utterly splendid writer. She arrived in this isolated part of British East Africa in about 1906, when her father joined the rush of colonization by establishing a house, stables and adjoining acreages of grassland to feed his neighbors’ stock and his own. She raises, breaks and rides horses and acts as midwife when foals are born. She loves riding and the rush of adrenaline that accompanies her forays into unknown territory. The writing is such that I could practically hear and feel the horse beneath the saddle as she explores the hills and plains of a land populated with lions, elephants, wildebeest, warthogs, hyenas, and a variety of antelope.
After an aviator friend introduces her to the wonder of flying she embarks upon a radical change in lifestyle. She becomes a bush pilot. You can sense her exhilaration as, after acquiring her own plane, she flies alone over mostly trackless country, delivering people and packages throughout Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. As this new career develops, her Avro monoplane becomes an aerial substitute for her horse, almost a friend. At first this may seem odd, but she makes you understand why it is not. Earlier, in a moment that seems like prescience, she had named her favorite horse Pegasus.
As a reader it came as something of a shock to me when this lover of ranch life and native culture – we learn little about her family and nothing of her schooldays – leaps at the prospect of an adventure more audacious than any other and decides to become the first pilot to fly solo from England to America. A photograph shows her beloved plane after she crash-landed in a Newfoundland bog, nose-down at a 45-degree angle. With this near-deadly arrival she accomplished her dream, almost, for she had her eyes set on a New York touch-down. She received a hero’s welcome nevertheless after arriving in New York by surface transportation. The next we know, she is on her way to Africa, and her book is complete half-way through her lifetime.
This is an exciting page-turner of a memoir, up to the terrifying hours she spent in and above the clouds east of Newfoundland with no radio and little more than a compass and an altimeter to guide her through a harrowing night flight. The entire book is so well written and so thrilling that it was not easy for me to believe that this young adventurer ever had time to learn the art of writing with such perfection, though she was 32 when she crossed the Atlantic and 40 when her book was published.
I wondered what did happen after her arrival in New York. And did she really write the book?
According to Errol Trzebinski’s 1993 biography The Lives of Beryl Markham, Markham went to Hollywood soon after her transatlantic flight and met Scott O’Dell, a novelist and scriptwriter who worked at Paramount Studios. O’Dell introduced her to a fellow scriptwriter, Raoul Schumacher, who agreed to edit her memoirs. The two became a social item and married in 1942, the year West with the Night was first published by Houghton Mifflin. The story goes that in the following year Schumacher presented O’Dell with the shocking charge that Markham had written “not one damned word of anything.”
And so there is an unresolved controversy. In Straight on Till Morning, a 1987 biography, author Mary S. Lovell said Markham wrote the whole book. Markham’s own comment was a simple, short acknowledgement: “I want to express my gratitude to Raoul Schumacher for his constant encouragement and his assistance in the preparations for this book.” She dedicated the book to her father.
Markham died at age 83 in 1987 in Nairobi, Kenya, enriched by the re-issue of her book three years earlier and a PBS documentary of her life but after years of advancing poverty as a racehorse trainer. Apparently she told no one that Schumacher, who was a professional ghost writer, compiled her book from her journals and reminiscences. And perhaps this was not the case. It may be an unfair and untrue scenario, for it is difficult to believe that someone who had not personally experienced Markham’s adventures could insert such passion and knowledge (particularly of horse breeding, native Kenyan culture, and 1930s aviation) into the writing of West with the Night. I like the idea that she was most inspired by her close friend and fellow aviator, Antoine de Saint Exupéry.
No matter how this book came into being, it is a classic of its time and earned the rare distinction of a rave review from Ernest Hemingway. It remains a superb read in the 21st century, and I would recommend it to anyone.