Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Circling the Sun": Into Africa With a Fearless Heroine

We’re all of us afraid of many things, but if you make yourself smaller or let your fear confine you, then you really aren’t your own person at all—are you? The real question is whether or not you will risk what it takes to be happy.

Beryl Markham's prophetic statement "I could come through nearly anything my world might throw at me" after being nearly mauled by a neighbor's pet lion, becomes her mantra for a life of adventurous tumult.

In Paula McClain's "Circling the Sun" McClain delves once again into a novelized memoir like her huge success "The Paris Wife," the fictionalized autobiography of Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson.  Instead of focusing on expats behaving badly in New York during the 1920s, this time McClain sets her sites on expats behaving badly in a more wild and earthy backdrop, Kenya before it was Kenya.

"Circling the Sun" follows the unflappable Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo, east to west, across the Atlantic.  Her 1942 memoir "West with the Night" came to fame when Ernest Hemingway raved about it and the writing prowess of Markham.

McClain's account of Markham follows more of her upbringing - moving with her family from England when she was 2 years old to the untamed landscape of a 1,500 acre farm in Kenya.  Her father was a distracted farmer who was better at horse training and her mother was neglectful and unsuited to the African wilderness and subsequently leaves Beryl and her father.  Beryl's childhood is far from ordinary.  She learns to spear fight with the local tribe boys and runs free on her father's ranch.  She's fearless and headstrong.

Her life continues to throw obstacles in her path from poverty to a loveless marriage to a jealous and cruel drunk to being exiled and giving up a baby, and she navigates each with grace - each tragedy that could destroy an ordinary person only serves to strengthen Beryl's resolve to live life her own way. She becomes the youngest and only female race horse trainer in Kenya, and she also becomes a famous female pilot.

The novel focuses heavily on Beryl's love interest - the womanizing, poetry spouting, large game hunter, Denys Finch Hatton who Robert Redford played in "Out of Africa." Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) loved him much the way that Beryl did.  He was a commitment phobe who used women for his own purposes, but that didn't stop Beryl's infatuation and pursuit of Denys.

It is Hatton's love of flying that draws her to it, and leads to her to pursue it even after Denys dies in a tragic airplane crash.

The novel is easy to read with beautiful imagery of the untamed African wilderness throughout.  It's ambitious with a rowdy cast of secondary characters who are for the most part historically accurate in their depiction. I did get a little bit restless by the end of it feeling as if McClain was hurrying through the years too quickly or maybe trying to do too much and was running out of room to finish.

Overall, though, I was caught up in the romantic sun drenched Kenyan landscapes, and the unflinching life of a very strong woman whose mere presence felt magnetic.  If only all of us could use the tragedies of our lives to build us stronger than weaker.  And if we could learn to live our own lives vs. follow what everyone else deems appropriate for us.  Beryl Markham will remind you what it means to live your life out loud.

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