A Girl, Up in the Air, In Africa


People read books for the strangest of reasons.

I recently read a book about a female aviator in Africa in the 1930s.

I have no interest in aviation. I have no interest in Africa.

But it was a great book.

I began reading it after I stumbled onto something Ernest Hemingway wrote in a 1942 letter to his friend, Maxwell Perkins.

Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s logbook. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and sometimes making an okay pigpen. But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant,… can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true. So, you have to take as truth the early stuff about when she was a child which is absolutely superb. She omits some very fantastic stuff which I know about which would destroy much of the character of the heroine; but what is that anyhow in writing? I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.

How can you resist a recommendation like that?

Here are a few sentences from the book:

A map says to you. Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not… I am the earth in the palm of your hand.

Harmony comes gradually to a pilot and his plane. The wing does not want so much to fly true as to tug at the hands that guide it; the ship would rather hunt the wind than lay her nose to the horizon far ahead. She has a derelict quality in her character; she toys with freedom and hints at liberation, but yields her own desires gently.

The hills, the forests, the rocks, and the plains are one with the darkness, and the darkness is infinite. The earth is no more your planet than is a distant star – if a star is shining; the plane is your planet and you are its sole inhabitant.

Looking down from her plane she sees a herd of impala, wildebeest and zebra,

It was not like a herd of cattle or of sheep, because it was wild, and it carried with it the stamp of wilderness and the freedom of a land still more a possession of Nature than of men. To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told — that the world once lived and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.

Most of the book isn’t really about flying at all. It’s about looking and seeing and living in the world around you.

Toomba’s grin spreads over his wide face like a ripple in a pond… He grins until there is no more room for both the grin and his eyes, so his eyes disappear.

The trail ran north to Molo; at night it ran straight to the stars. It ran up the side of the Mau Escarpment until at ten thousand feet it found the plateau and rested there, and some of the stars burned beneath its edge.

Writing about a young horse named Balmy, Markham said,

She was neither vicious nor stubborn, she was very fast on the track, and she responded intelligently to training… Had she made her debut on Park Avenue in the middle thirties instead of on the race-course at Nairobi in the middle twenties, she would have been counted as one of those intellectually irresponsible individuals always referred to as being ‘delightfully mad.’ Her madness, of course, consisted simply of a penchant for doing things that, in the opinions of her stable mates, weren’t being done. No well-brought-up filly, for instance, while being exercised before the critical watchfulness of her owner, her trainer, and a half-dozen members of the Jockey Club, would come to an abrupt halt beside a mud-hole left by last month’s rains, buckle at the knees, and before anything could be done about it, roll over in the muck like a Berkshire hog. But Balmy did, as often as there was a mudhole in her path and a trusting rider on her back, though what pleasure she got out of it none of us ever knew. She was a little like the eccentric genius who, after being asked by his host why he had rubbed the broccoli in his hair at dinner, apologized with a bow from the waist and said he had thought it was spinach.

Hemingway was right. It really is a bloody wonderful book.

Roy H. Williams