West with the Night


By Beryl Markham

cover image of West with the Night

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West with the Night is a memoir by British-born author, aviator, and equestrian, Beryl Markham. Friend and fellow author Ernest Hemingway once wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins asking: "Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West with the Night? ... bloody wonderful work." Markham was one of, if not the first, female bush pilots in Africa, and her memoir details adventures in Kenya with a unique perspective both from the ground and the sky.

Markham was born in the county of Rutland in Midlands, England, to Charles and Clara Clutterbuck in October of 1902. Two years later, her father took a chance and moved their family to untouched bush in the Rift Valley, one hundred miles from Nairobi, to farm and train horses. Her mother, Clara, found the hard work insufferable and abandoned her family to return to England. Markham's father was left to care for her, and she quickly became the proverbial 'wild-child.' She learned how to ride a horse before she walked, her first language was Swahili, and she spear hunted with her best friend Kibii; the African bush became her playground.

Her father eventually abandoned her, too, when she was sixteen, and fled to Peru after going bankrupt selling his farm and possessions piece by piece. Sadly, he also sold her, his daughter, to their neighbor Jock Purves. Embarrassed and angry, Markham scraped her way to becoming the first female licensed horse trainer in Kenya at 19. She divorced Purves, and her reputation to produce winning racehorses spread fast. By 24, her horse, Wise Child, won the prestigious St. Ledger race. She would continue to train winning racehorses the rest of her life.

Markham tried her luck at marriage a few times, but she fell in love instead with aviation. She began as a bush pilot carrying mail and passengers around Kenya. She took men on safari above the ground in search of wild game; she even assisted in transporting medical supplies to gold miners. Yet she continued to crave more: more adventure, more challenges, more flying. In 1936, at the age of 33, Markham became the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. This was a particularly ambitious undertaking because headwinds and storms were considered dangerous in this direction.

In her memoir, Markham describes her love affair with flying as "a momentary escape from the eternal custody of the earth." Many of her chapters capture the intensity and adrenaline rush that Markham experienced while flying, as well as the stillness and quietness that came with being grounded. Hunting lions in the Rongai Valley, searching for a lost fellow aviator's plane at night, watching herds of wildlife spread out across the land beneath her; adventures that intersect with nostalgic first memories of her father's farm, and fond memories of her young adult life in Africa.

Beryl Markham's memoir earned a place in National Geographic's list of "The 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time." Additionally, during World War II, the U.S. Army distributed West with the Night to Soldiers overseas as part of the Armed Services initiative to provide entertainment to troops, specifically adventure novels and stories.

In 1980, American restaurateur, George Gutekunst, after reading Hemmingway's letters detailing the work of Markham as brilliant, tracked down a copy in the library. In 1983, he had West with the Night re-published, and it sold over a million copies. Critics called it a lost masterpiece. Markham was able to see her work's success prior to dying peacefully in Nairobi in 1986 at the age of 83.

West with the Night