Circling the Sun – Will the Real Beryl Markham Please Stand Up

9780345534187_p0_v2_s192x300When I started reading Paula McClain’s Circling the Sun, the story got lost in the characters and my dim memory of the movie “Out of Africa.”  Before continuing, I sought more information on the famous aviatrix Beryl Markham in the biography Straight on Till Morning by Mary S. Lovell and in Markham’s memoir West With The Night.  The information did not always match, confirming my long held suspicion of memoirs. Biographers with their long list of references can usually be trusted to be more objective than doctored memories and withheld secrets in memoirs, and novelists with poetic license can create a mythical heroine who may not have actually existed.

In an article for Town and Country – An Insanely Glamorous Love Triangle  – Paula Mc Clain confirmed Lovell’s biographical facts and provided a succinct summary of Beryl Markham’s early life and background – a good grounding for reading the fictionalized version she created in Circling the Sun.  In her biography of Markham, Lovell’s accounting of the facts has the flavor of documentation, as she peppers her text with quotes from her well-researched resources. She includes excerpts from letters and her impressions from interviewing the elderly Markham – perhaps not the most reliable source.  Together, the biography and the article gave me what I needed.  Understanding Beryl Markham’s real life made the fiction more enjoyable and understandable.

Although Lovell’s biography clearly outlined the key dramatic events shaping the life of Beryl Markham, McClain offers a sympathetic and sometimes softened view, suggesting motivations and conflicts inside the minds of the characters.  When I read McClain’s narrative describing Beryl’s first marriage at the age of sixteen to a rich thirty year old landowner in Africa, I remembered Lovell’s clear references to the trade her father had made in bartering her for money needed for his farm.  When Beryl proclaims she is still a virgin into the third week of her marriage in Circling the Sun, I remembered Lovell’s references to Beryl’s desire for sex in and out of her marriages – a fact McClain capitalizes on later in the novel when she imagines Beryl’s sexual awakening.

Like no other life event, four year old Beryl being abandoned by her mother shaped her outlook on life, molding her interaction with others – especially her father – and ultimately forming her fierce spirit.  McClain projects how this trauma continued to haunt Beryl and influence her decisions. Throughout the novel McClain expanded on life events with imaginative and sometimes scintillating details – Beryl’s relationship with the brother of the Prince of Wales (whose baby was it really?), the commonplace extramarital affairs (Are you married or do you live in Kenya?), and, of course, the steamy story behind the beautiful Danish baroness – Karen Blixen – and her sexy womanizing husband Denys Finch Hatton (played by Robert Redford in the movie). Although McClain has Beryl Markham narrating her tale from the cockpit of her Vega Gull airplane, the record-breaking 1936 trip across the ocean is only a blip in her story.

Hemingway, whose appraisal of Markham’s writing skills inadvertently triggered  the success of Beryl Markham’s memoir in its second edition, had met her in Africa and commented in a letter to his publisher: “…this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch…” McClain’s fictionalized Beryl Markham is not as unpleasant as she may have been in life, but wouldn’t we all prefer to be immortalized as a sexy adventurer and a feminine icon?  The facts of her life as noted by Lovell are amazing in themselves: Beryl Markham was “a famous aviatrix who was brought up on an African ranch, {became} a professional horse trainer, learned to fly, and for years operated a sort of air taxi service for African hunters…” And she probably didn’t care if people liked her or not.

 

The Arsonist

9780307594792_p0_v3_s260x420In The Arsonist, Sue Miller connects real fires set by an unknown pyromaniac to the fires that burn within two women – a mother and her daughter – as they struggle to be true to themselves and find home.  Drawn to their own work, Sylvia, a part-time college instructor, and her daughter, Frankie, an Aid worker in Africa, are reluctant to trade independence and self-worth for a shared life in a place neither wants to be – yet they both do – for awhile.  Love, of course, is the great motivator.

Frankie returns to her parent’s rural New England home, after years of working in Africa, trying to decide if she should return to her work or stay away from the country she has adopted.  Her father, a retired college professor, who is showing signs of dementia, continues on a steady decline throughout the story, while her mother, Sylvia, is bristling with the responsibilities she must suddenly assume, and restless over losing her own way in life as she followed the husband she no longer loves.

Frankie meets Bud, the small town newspaper owner/editor, who left the political maelstrom in Washington, D.C. during the Clinton presidency, to assume the more ordered and calm life of the country.  His somnolent reports of high school sports, births and deaths, teas and dances, are suddenly jolted by the fires that destroy the opulent summer houses in the town.  With each new fire, the normally sleepy town becomes restless, with townies pitted against the flatlanders.  The search for the arsonist carries the plot, yet Miller’s observations of human nature are the real story.

Eventually, the arsonist is caught – perhaps.  And, by the end, all the characters’ personal journeys are resolved – somewhat.  The ending might not fit with some readers’ expectations of self-realization for the characters, but I could relate to the unsettled feelings that seemed more realistic than a pat resolution.  Miller leaves the reader wondering about the concept of home.

Read a reviews of another Sue Miller book:   The Lake Shore Limited

 

State of Wonder and Heart of Darkness

A local book club’s pick of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder led me to rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The similarities are hard to miss: the menacing jungle (Africa for Conrad, Brazil for Patchett); the main character who manipulates the ignorant natives ( Kurtz vs Dr. Swenson); the ruthless, greedy corporation willing to destroy a way of life in the name of progress (ivory merchants in Africa; pharmaceutical companies in Brazil).

Both authors use brutal realism, with Patchett offering some respite in romance, while Conrad mires in the worst of humanity. Both use their talents for phrasing to capture the reader.

“Marina brushed her hand across the back of her neck and dislodged something with a hard shell. She had learned in time to brush instead of slap as slapping only served to pump the entire contents of the insect which was doubtlessly already burrowed into the skin with some entomological protuberance, straight into the bloodstream.”  Patchett, State of Wonder

“I tried to break the spell–the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness–that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations.”
Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Conrad wrote his cautionary tale over 100 years ago (1903). Not much has changed it seems, just the players and the place, continuing the universal themes of greed and ethics.

If you haven’t yet read State of Wonder, the review here might tempt you. The classic Heart of Darkness is available free online.