West With the Night
by Beryl Markham
Beryl Markham was the first person to fly solo from England to North America from east to west, against prevailing Atlantic winds. She accomplished this remarkable feat in 1936, flying a Vega Gull dubbed The Messenger. Her harrowing flight, which ended with a crash landing in Nova Scotia, brought a brief flurry of international acclaim in that age of aviation firsts. Markham’s record flight, however, was only one accomplishment in an unconventional life, retold beautifully in her memoir West With the Night, first published in 1942.
Markham was raised by her father on a remote farm in Njoro, British East Africa (present-day Kenya). After a tomboyish childhood spent roaming the Kenyan wilds, she moved upcountry to Molo, becoming a racehorse trainer. There she saw her first plane and met British pilot Tom Black, who became her flight instructor and lover.
Soon Markham earned her commercial pilot’s license, the first woman in Kenya to do so, and began to freelance as a bush pilot. Much of West With the Night concerns itself with this period in Markham’s life, detailing her flights in an Avro Avian biplane running supplies to remote outposts or scouting game for safaris.
Since airfields were essentially nonexistent in Africa at the time, Markham’s flights were particularly dangerous, punctuated with white-knuckle landings in forest clearings and open fields. In fact the dangers of African flying claimed the lives of a number of aviators. Markham eloquently describes her own search for a downed pilot: “Time and distance together slip smoothly past the tips of my wings without sound, without return, as I peer downward over the night-shadowed hollows of the Rift Valley and wonder if Woody, the lost pilot, could be there, a small pinpoint of hope and of hopelessness listening to the low, unconcerned song of the Avian—flying elsewhere.”
Markham’s memoir shies away from personal details and straightforward chronology, instead focusing on vivid scenes gathered from a well-lived life. Rarely does one encounter such an evocative sense of a time and place as she creates. The heat and dust of Africa emanate from her prose. Anyone interested in aviation, in Africa or in simply reading an absorbing book will find much to like in its pages. Ernest Hemingway wrote of her memoir, “I wish you would get it and read it because it really is a bloody wonderful book.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.