Circling the Sun McLain's Latest Triumph

Paula McLain
Ballantine Books
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Do women have to die to be considered heroines? I’ve long wondered why there’s been such intense fascination over Amelia Earhart, when Beryl Markham (1902-1986) remains a relative unknown whose remarkable autobiography was decades out of print when it was republished in 1983. She appeared only as a composite character in Isak Dinesen’s 1937 autobiography Out of Africa (and in the 1985 film), though Beryl and Karen Blixen (Dinesen is a nom de plume) were friends in life, as well as rivals for the affections of Denys Finch Hatton. Markham made history in 1936, the year before Earhart’s doomed flight, by becoming the first aviatrix to cross the Atlantic solo from east to west. If that doesn’t sound like such a big deal to you, consider that her plane had to carry all its fuel with it, and the working tank had to drain completely before allowing fuel from the auxiliary storage to flow into it. Still not impressed? Markham also had to turn off the engine while doing all of this, lest a spark blow up the plane. This meant the aircraft went into free fall, and Markham had seconds to restart the engine or she would have met Earhart's fate.

Paula McLain finds Markham a compelling subject for a novel, and I couldn’t agree more. McLain–who earlier dazzled with The Paris Wife–begins and ends her novel in the sky, but she focuses more on Beryl’s African youth. What a fascinating tale it is–one that makes Markham a thoroughly modern woman long before it was fashionable or safe to be one. Along the way she took the word “no” as a personal challenge and smashed every gender expectation her society threw at her.  For Beryl the words “Well behaved women seldom make history” wasn’t a slogan; it was her de facto mantra. This made her a “difficult” person by respectable standards. She was a tomboy who married three times and kept her vows in none of those attachments; count King George V’s son as among her probable lovers. Finch Hatton was definitely in that company, but he bedded just about every available woman in British East Africa.

McLain presents British East Africa (today’s Kenya) as the liberating antidote to the stultifying British society into which Beryl was born. She was the daughter of a horse trainer, Charles Baldwin Clutterback, and a mother so English that when the family moved to Kenya (when Beryl was just four), she spent little time in locating a lover with whom she could flee back to England. This was probably all for the best for Beryl, who grew up with dreams on becoming a Kipsigis warrior. Beryl’s long friendship with an African local is among McLain’s subplots.  Because her father provided love but little structure, Beryl became something of a wild colt who adapted to whatever came her way, including repeated cycles of wealth and poverty. Quite logically, the wild colt followed her father’s footsteps into what was then the exclusive male domain of training prize racehorses and was so good at it that British aristocrats like Lord Delamere were willing to act as patrons, social convention be damned. In McLain’s book, Delamere acts as a more effective second father figure–another very interesting relationship. But the dynamics between Finch Hatton, Karen Blixen, and Beryl make for the book’s most complex triad. Both women bedded the free-spirited Finch Hatton, but given that Blixen was 17 years Beryl’s senior, she sometimes acted as a surrogate older sister, almost as if she were the superego between two out-of-control ids.

McLain excels at probing the interiors of complex people placed in unusual situations. We soon understand the attraction between Finch Hatton and (still gangly) Beryl–they are among the few Europeans in sub-Saharan Africa who were at home amidst the wildness rather than dreaming of sedate domestication in England or Denmark. McLain is equally adroit at making Africa come alive–with all of its horrors and beauties. Beryl’s world was one in which you could rid yourself of an unwanted governess by putting a dead black mamba in her room; it was also one of knowing what to do when thrown from a horse within venom-spitting distance of a coiled cobra, or having a clear head when attacked by a lion. If this doesn’t sound like a place you’d ever wish to be, read McLain’s gorgeous description of staring into the Great Rift Valley before closing your mind.

This is a fascinating treatment of a remarkable–and, yes, pigheaded–young woman that take us just until she is 28 and floating in the clouds. Once you read about Markham’s formative years, her flight will seem like the most logical thing in the world for her to do. Amelia Earhart crashed; Beryl Markham soared.

Rob Weir


Jennifer said...

Have you read Markham's autobiography? I read (actually listened, while driving) to it years ago, and found it quite compelling, wonder how the novel compares.

Rob said...

Yes--read it years ago. The novel slices a thinner piece of that life, but both books are gripping reading.