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Circling the Sun


Circling the Sun

I’m a bag of nerves when I get on a plane, though the idea of flying enthralls me: Amelia Earhart was one of my girlhood idols. But I hadn’t heard of Beryl Markham then; only in the 1980s, when her memoir, WEST WITH THE NIGHT, was reissued, did she appear on my radar. Earhart was the first woman to make the west-to-east Atlantic solo flight, in 1932; Markham, four years later, the first to accomplish it east-to-west. So when I saw that Paula McLain, author of the acclaimed THE PARIS WIFE, was planning a book based on Markham’s life, I envisioned a high-altitude trip.

Well, it is a heady journey, but not in the sense I’d anticipated. Although CIRCLING THE SUN, McLain’s new novel, is bookended by first-person accounts of Markham’s 1936 solo flight, in between is the story of her life in the British East African Protectorate, later Kenya. It is about growing up motherless, training racehorses, falling in love, and trying to remain her own person in an expatriate community that had plenty of eccentrics but limited tolerance for genuine rebels.

Because Markham is legendary for her aeronautic exploits, she is not quite the same unknown quantity as Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, whom McLain rescued from the margins of history in THE PARIS WIFE. And yet, Markham’s account of Kenya in the early 20th century has always been overshadowed by OUT OF AFRICA, the classic memoir by Karen Blixen (later Isak Dinesen); the two women were friends as well as rivals for the affection of Denys Finch Hatton, the dashing and elusive pilot/big-game hunter (you might remember him in the film Out of Africa; does Robert Redford washing Meryl Streep’s hair ring a bell?) So in a sense, McLain is righting the balance, giving Markham her due as a colorful and sometimes scandal-ridden presence in the colony.

"CIRCLING THE SUN both entertains and inspires, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it soars as high as THE PARIS WIFE.... Historical novels like this one, which bring neglected or forgotten pioneers to light, give us a view of history that isn’t simply a parade of 'great men,' that acknowledges our gender’s accomplishments and sacrifices."

The roots of Markham’s independence couldn’t be clearer. She suffers her first great loss at five, when her mother leaves Africa to return to England (McLain, whose own mother disappeared at around the same age, is particularly good on the complexity and heartbreak of this decisive event). Her father has a horse farm; she begins to learn his trade (“The stable was my classroom”) while spending every spare moment with a boy from the local tribe, Kibii, who later, under his adult name, Ruta, becomes her most faithful friend and ally.

Her barefoot days are soon over. Her father invites one Mrs. Orchardson, his common-law wife and a sort of expatriate Mary Poppins (“She liked order and soap and the day sliced up into manageable portions”), to live with them and “civilize” Markham; when that doesn’t work, he sends her to boarding school in Nairobi. By that time, however, it is far too late to change this free spirit into a conventional woman.

Markham doesn’t simply love horses; she lives for them. She is there when they give birth and when they die; she can ride anything, and does. At 18, she is the first woman in Kenya to get a trainer’s license and goes on to see her horses win race after race. The equestrian passages are among the most memorable in CIRCLING THE SUN: Markham crossing a broken rope bridge with her beloved Pegasus; galloping a racing prospect named Wise Child by a lake, with “a rose-pink tide of flamingos” rising around them; daring to ride the mutinous Messenger Boy, who is a sort of four-legged stand-in for Markham herself --- rebellious, arrogant, challenging. Often, her most successful relationships seem to be with animals rather than with people, especially men.

Husbands and lovers always want to fence Markham in. She dreams of being on her own: “Not someone’s daughter or wife…but my own person.” Then she meets the handsome, poetry-quoting Denys Finch Hatton, another loner (the longtime lover of Karen Blixen, he never acceded to her desire for a more permanent connection), who encourages her to become a pilot. In this doomed romantic figure, Markham finds a soul mate.

If I can sneak in a small criticism here, I’m afraid I found her mooning after Finch Hatton a bit tiresome at times; a few overheated passages seem more rhetorical than real. Still, perhaps melodrama is appropriate for this bold, larger-than-life pair. When he dies --- fittingly, in a plane crash --- Markham pictures the two of them as Icarus figures: “We had both tried for the sun, and had fallen, lurching to earth again, tasting melted wax and sorrow.” The title “Circling the Sun” thus refers not simply to flying, as I thought at first, but to Markham’s whole go-for-broke approach to life.

Her untamed personality finds a perfect parallel in the idyllic African landscape (“[I]t was a heaven fitted exactly to me”), and McLain is eloquent, even lyrical, in evoking Kenya’s physical beauty, its dreamlike quality. “This close to the equator, we had almost no twilight,” Markham muses as she rides home with her father. “Day turned to night in minutes, but they were lovely ones. Around us the yellow grasses stretched and moved like the sea....  There was a powerful illusion that the bush didn’t end --- that we could ride for years this way….”

CIRCLING THE SUN both entertains and inspires, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it soars as high as THE PARIS WIFE. The reason, I think, is that women need heroes. Historical novels like this one, which bring neglected or forgotten pioneers to light, give us a view of history that isn’t simply a parade of “great men,” that acknowledges our gender’s accomplishments and sacrifices.

Beryl Markham suffered moral opprobrium for daring to be different, and she faced tremendously skewed odds in attempting to be the first of her gender to enter the predominantly male worlds of horse training and aviation. I hope, for her, that the risks were worth it. I hope, too, that CIRCLING THE SUN will lead readers to Markham’s own book (Hemingway himself praised it). I already have a copy on my Kindle.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on July 29, 2015

Circling the Sun
by Paula McLain

  • Publication Date: May 31, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345534204
  • ISBN-13: 9780345534200