Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

This fictionalized story of Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, and a pioneer in other ways as well, suffers a little from breathlessness. But on the whole, McLain evokes early 20th century Kenya - the people, the landscape, the colors and scents and wildness. And her subject is a worthy one - a woman of courage, a great heart.

Beryl Clutterbuck's mother moved to England with the couple's sickly younger son when Beryl was small. She and her father stayed on the farm in Kenya where he raised and bred racehorses, and at his side she learned everything he knew about conformation, blood lines, racing, and the thrill of riding across the open country. Her inseparable companion was a Kipsigis boy her age. Together they hunted and explored the bush country, and her father, distracted by his own affairs, let her run wild.

When she was about 12, a series of governesses tried to civilize her, to little avail, but she was presented as a debutante at 16 in Nairobi, and soon her life took a different turn. Her father's debts had overtaken him. He sold off the farm and decamped to Cape Town with Beryl's last governess, eventually his wife.

Beryl had two disastrous marriages, the first at 16 to a taciturn hard-drinking neighbor, the second six years later to a pampered Englishman who seemed a loyal friend till pregnancy took them to England where he quickly sank in thrall to his mother. She didn't let marriage stop her from pursuing a certificate as a race-horse trainer, which she received at age 18, being the youngest person and first female to earn the distinction. This brought her the respect to find work at various horse farms, training thoroughbreds and living as she pleased.

Africa attracted misfits who became kindred spirits. Among these were Denys Finch Hatton, a hunter who led tourists on big game hunts, his inamorata Karen Blixen, her husband Bror, Denys's friend Berkeley Cole, and others.

Many of the colonists in Kenya at that time were younger sons with no inheritance - bloodlines without money - and ne'er-do-wells shaking off the strictures of European society. There was a lot of sleeping around, drug use, drunkenness, and general dissipation. The ones who fared best were those who embraced Africa with its droughts and floods, lions and wild elephants, poisonous snakes, thorn trees and all the rest. Beryl, as untamed as the country, loved it. Growing up there made it possible for her to flourish as a horse trainer, as a woman with very few restrictions, and later as a pilot.

Her freedom is enviable even now, when (some) women have more opportunities - from a young age she was on her own, not allowing her marriages to restrict her more than temporarily. Her great love was Denys Finch Hatton, but despite strong attraction, he was not a man to be tied down. When he died crashing his plane, that did not stop her from loving to fly, feeling the exhilaration she had enjoyed as a horsewoman.

If you're interested in her adventures as a pilot, read Markham's memoir West with the Night, or Mary Lovell's biography Straight on Till Morning: the Life of Beryl Markham. Instead, this is the story of her youth, when she spent a lot of time training horses and earning notoriety and fascination among white colonists. Africa was an essential part of her - she could hardly have achieved what she did within the strictures of a well-ordered society, an urban milieu. In Kenya, she had room to push herself beyond limits, to live fully.