“I have lifted my plane from the Nairobi airport for perhaps a thousand flights and I have never felt her wheels glide from the earth into the air without knowing the uncertainty and the exhilaration of firstborn adventure.”
In 1942, Beryl Markham had more than a few harrowing tales to tell. She published her memoir West with the Night to share them with the world. Raised in Africa, a continent still shrouded in a kind of dreadful mystery to the rest of the world, Markham had trained race horses and survived a lion attack, but most intriguing of all was her time as a pilot.
The only professional female pilot in Africa in the 1930s, Markham was kept very busy flying solo back and forth across the dark continent. Early in her book she tells a story about flying to a place called Nungwe to deliver a tank of oxygen to a man dying in the bush, an emergency night flight. She tells us that “to fly in unbroken darkness without even the cold companionship of a pair of ear-phones or the knowledge that somewhere ahead are light and life and a well-marked airport is something more than just lonely.”
These are the facts. The author is credible. You believe.
But Markham goes further. In the story about Nungwe, Markham follows her keen pilot instincts and elevates the moment by reaching through the page and pulling you into the story, into the plane. She says, “The earth is no more your planet than is a distant star—if a star is shining; the plane is your planet and you are its sole inhabitant.” Now you are in the cockpit. Alone. You begin to think the way Markham thought, knowing that the length and peril of the long night flight “depends on the depth of the darkness and the height of the clouds, the speed of the wind, the stars, the fullness of the moon. It depends on you… upon the things that live in your mind while you swing suspended between the earth and the silent sky.”
Since Icarus, we have all dreamed of flight, we have all envied the birds. Markham was one one of the first to make the sky her terrain. This is why her story is important, but what makes her story special has everything to do with technique. She opens her book with the night flight to Nungwe to solidify in your mind the kind of adventure you can expect in the pages to come, as well as to provide an aerial perspective on both the land and the life outlined in those pages.
When the book was published in the 1940s, prejudices existed worldwide when it came to Africa, its residents, its politics, its potential, its doom. As Markham put it, “There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa—as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime… Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia… To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.’ It is all these things but one thing—it is never dull.” Markham’s writing was motivated by more than a desire to record her own exploits. She wanted to put Africa in a new light, as it was seen through the eyes of a girl who played and hunted in the bush, someone who was famous enough and well-educated enough to be considered a credible source of information. She puts you directly into the cockpit of her plane because she wants you to see that Africa, her home, was more than the tribal turmoil and sensationalized violence and racial prejudice seen on the ground. From above it was (is) gloriously beautiful.
We each live but once. In the end, that one life will have provided us with myriad stories and memories, but often our own stories seem mundane. Perhaps this is why so many people read memoirs. We long for the stories of other, possibly better people: political figures, curers of disease, rule breakers, and seasoned travelers. If a memoir is successful, the narrator acts as a guide on safari, an ambassador to a new society, and/or a foreign correspondent. Such stories give us hope. We carry the best of them along with us for the rest of our lives, because we identified in some way with the author, the narrator, the tale. Their stories, their Africas, can become ours also.
In closing, I’ll leave you with some final kind words from Hemingway on West With the Night: “As it is, 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 writers… I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.”