Saturday, June 4, 2016

So much more than horse trainer or pilot!

I really liked The Paris Wife by Paula McLain when 
I read it almost exactly three years ago as the second book 
to be reviewed in the Literary Wives online book discussion group. I think I've mentioned in the past that it was this 
"club" that motivated me to finally establish a blog 
whereby to post reviews of books I have read. 
And now McLain has captured my heart yet again with 
Circling the Sun, a historical fiction work 
detailing the life of Beryl Markham (nee Clutterbuck). 
Yes, Clutterbuck was this woman's 'maiden' name. Oh, my, 
that name alone would motivate you to be a strong person 
and stand up for yourself, wouldn't it? :) As McLain explains in this All Things Considered interview, once she had read 
West With the Night, she was struck by the similarities 
between herself and Markham, and the lack of personal details.

I am eternally grateful to whatever motivated McLain to research and write this book about Beryl Markham. It was such a pleasure to read! As with The Paris Wife, I was not only drawn into another world, but felt as if I was living there, breathing the same air, viewing the same landscape as Beryl. That is why I love historical fiction--feeling as if I am THERE, wherever THERE is! :) McLain has accomplished this twice now, and with distinctly diverse environments! This book starts with 28-year-old Beryl attempting the first nonstop flight by a female pilot from England to America:
I have a chart that traces my route across the Atlantic, Abingdon to New York, every inch of 
icy water I'll pass over, but not the emptiness involved or the loneliness, or the fear. 
Those things are as real as anything else, though, and I'll have to fly through them. 
Straight through the sickening dips and air pockets, because you can't chart a course around anything your afraid of. You can't run from any part of yourself, and it's better that you can't. Sometimes I've thought it's only our challenges that sharpen us, and change us, too--
a mile-long runway and nineteen hundred pounds of fuel. Black squadrons of clouds muscling 
in from every corner of the sky and the light fading minute by minute. 
There is no way I could do any of this and remain the same. (4)
As I read this I thought to myself that really, each and every day of our lives is like this, isn't it? Each moment we live we are changed a bit, aren't we? 
After all the planning and care and work and mustering of courage, there is 
the overwhelming possibility that the Gull will stay fixed to the earth, more elephant than butterfly,        and that I'll fail before I've even begun. 
But not before I give this moment everything I've got. (4)
And it is that last sentence that sums up Beryl more than any other sentence--she definitely gave everything she had to everything she did in life. She is literally packed into this Vega Gull plane, The Messenger, with fuel tanks forming a "close-fitting wall" around the pilot's seat with petcocks within reach, though she's been instructed to 
...let one run completely dry and close it off before opening the next, to avoid an airlock. 
The engine might freeze for a few moments, but will start up again. I will have to rely on that. (3)
Yikes! That is all I could think as I read these instructions! That is definitely putting your life on the line. And it isn't like it would be now, with instant communication or even another plane flying alongside you for emergency purposes...nope, she was definitely putting her life on the line! 

Here is a sample of McLain's skill in 'setting a scene':
Before Kenya was Kenya, when it was millions of years old and yet still somehow new, 
the name belongs only to our most magnificent mountain. You could see it from our farm 
in Njoro, in the British East African Protectorate--hard edged at the far end of a stretching 
golden plain, its crown glazed with ice that never completely melted. 
Behind us, the Mau Forest was blue with strings of mist. 
Before us, the Rongai Valley sloped down and away, bordered on one side by the strange, 
high Menengai Crater, which the natives called the Mountain of God, and 
on the other by the distant Aberdare Range, rounded blue-grey hills 
that went smoky and purple at dusk before dissolving into the night sky. (11)
I felt as if I was standing in the middle of all this landscape! Beryl was two years old when her family moved to Kenya from England and a mere four years old when her mother packed up her brother and those two headed back 'home.' Interestingly, no mention was made of how this decision was made to split up the children, one with their mother in England and one with their father in Kenya, but it was done. To be abandoned at four years of age by your own mother. Not to say her father wasn't a good, sincere, hard-working man, but he certainly was not a nurturer of children! Very little communication, and absolutely no acknowledgement or discussion of feelings! No sirree! This was when the Kipsigis basically adopted Beryl and gave her a tribal name, Lakwet, meaning "very little girl." To a great degree, the Kip nurtured and raised her during the remainder of her childhood. Kibii was her best friend, a young male Kip about her age, and she spent most all her time doing what he did, to train as a warrior. Though tribal females learned only 'domestic' skills, the elders allowed her this nontraditional role. 
...I belonged on the farm and in the bush...I had come alive here, as if I'd been given a second birth, and a truer one...for as long as childhood lasted it was a heaven fitted exactly to me.
A place I knew by heart. The one place in the world I'd been made for. (18)
I could understand this attachment to the land, a place, this farm called Green Hills, much as I had always felt attached to my grandmother's farm. (I believe I have mentioned before that I knew every square inch of those 180 acres!) Unlike Beryl, I didn't have human companions, only my dog and the livestock! I'm fairly certain I would have been much like Beryl given the same environment and opportunities! 

Mrs. O, the first of many a governess and/or tutor, arrives, and Beryl thinks to herself:
I would show her I wasn't a bit of cobweb in the corner, something to be wiped or straightened, but a rival worth her notice. I would learn her ways and habits, and track her closely until I knew what she was and how to best her, and what precisely it would take to steal my good life back. (31)
Ah, just like hunting any other animal and besting it, eh? :) I admit I can appreciate Beryl's thought processes! Once Beryl turned twelve, Charles (her father) took her along on a business trip to the Elkingtons' farm where there is a 'pet' lion that runs loose. As he explains to Beryl, Paddy the lion
"...has no fear, you see, not as we understand it. He can only be exactly what he is, 
what his nature dictates, and nothing else...You can take a cub from the savannah as they have...feed it fresh meat so it never learns to hunt and brush its coat so it carries a human smell wherever it goes--but know that what you've done is twist something natural into something else. And you can never trust an unnatural thing. You don't know what it is, and it's baffled, too." (37)
As Beryl runs through the bush area around the house, Paddy attacks her, though the lion does let her go, many stitches and weeks are required for a complete recovery.
I had lived to tell the tale. That alone had a powerful effect on me. I felt slightly invincible, 
that I could come through nearly anything my world might throw at me, 
but of course I had no idea what lay in store. (43)
Kibii began walking three steps behind Beryl and avoided hunting with her, etc., as they became teenagers, citing that she was the "memsahib" and that was proper behavior. Although this initially angered her, she knew he was correct and that their relationship had permanently changed, simply due to the color of their skin and disparate genetic heritage. I always think such situations are so sad. All due to "societal expectations" of 'decency' and what is 'proper.' However, this is only the first of many times that Beryl will wish to defy such norms, and in her future, she will do so, and suffer the consequences for it! And little does she know that her mother's own such actions had already set into motion inescapable life changes in Beryl's near future. It is at this same time that Kibii informs her he now has "a moran's [warrior's] name. I am arap Ruta." 

Although Beryl seemingly takes the easy way out and chooses to remain in Njoro, marrying their neighbor, Jock, as he kisses her, she tries "to meet the kiss and to take it in, I couldn't quite feel it. I couldn't feel us." She may only be 16, but she is wise beyond her years to realize she should feel an "us," in my opinion. Beryl soon brokers a "deal" with Jock so she can live on a neighboring farm to become a horse trainer, and at the age of 18 she becomes the first female license horse trainer in the WORLD! That was just one of the firsts she would accomplish! On the first race day that one of her trained horses is running, she thinks of her father:
...if I'd had the power to conjure anything, it would be for him to suddenly appear 
out of the crowd to stand next to me for those thunderous, dizzying minutes. 
That would mean so much more than winning--more than anything. (118)
Ack! Poor Beryl! No wonder this poor child was so scared of marriage, realizing she'd only seen one successful relationship played out in her childhood, that of her 'neighbors' seven miles away, the D's. Her parents certainly provided her with nothing even close to a successful model. This continued throughout adulthood. In fact, I had to become accustomed to recognizing the "happy" couples as those who were not married, while all the married couples were living out farcical 'for show only' relationships with no mutual love underneath the surface. It was a bit confusing for me at first! 

Beryl is no exception, as both of her husbands prove. They both expect her to change to meet their expectations, but she is true to herself and refuses to do so. As one of these estranged wives states,
"No one really knows how it is with anyone else. That's the truth. 
That's our only real retaliation when the gossip starts to churn."
[Beryl] "Maybe that's the secret to surviving all sorts of trouble, 
knowing who you are apart from it, I mean."
[Tania/Karen] "Yes...But like many things, it's so much easier to 
admire that stance than to carry it out." (161)
It is, as they say, much easier said...than done! 

Neither of Beryl's marriages were "happy." The only man she truly loved was one who was as wild and independent as herself, so ironically, the qualities they shared were also those that kept them from 'settling down.' Beryl earns her B-class pilot's license and becomes the first/only professional female pilot in Africa. 
More than anyone I'd known, Denys understood how nothing ever holds still for us, or should. The trick is learning to take things as they come and fully, too, with no resistance or fear, not trying to grip them too tightly or make them bend. I knew all this from my Lakwet days, but being with him helped me remember it, and feel it all again powerfully. (336)

As Beryl completes the first trans-Atlantic flight by a female pilot from England to America:
I drop lower and am crawling soon, as if after so many hours in the clouds, 
I have to remember all over again how to walk. 
As if I must relearn just where I am going, and where--impossibly--I have been. (355)

You can also read the NPR review written by Jean Zimmerman. 

I regret that I was unable to attend the author-signing event with McLain.
I do so love her writing!
And, oh, if you're at all interested in reading this one, please do!

Thought-provoking quotes:

"I have fought for independence here, and freedom, too. 
More and more I find they're not at all the same thing." (Tania/Karen-161)

"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." (Tania/Karen-165)

This from Denys after Beryl has told the story of Paddy's attack to him and Tania/Karen:
I'll bet it was important for you. We all have those moments--
though not always so dramatic...They're meant to test us and change us, I think. 
To make plain what it means to risk everything." (177)

[Beryl to Denys] "Africa is the cure, then, the opposite of being boxed in...
can you imagine this place starting to pinch on you, too?"
[Denys] "Never...It always seems to be reinventing itself, doesn't it?"
[Beryl] Kenya was forever shedding its skin and showing itself to you all over again. 
You didn't need to sail away for that. You only needed to turn around.

Beryl of Tania/Karen:
Her words were so full they made you think you knew everything about her, 
but it was a magician's trick. 
The truth was she kept her secrets closest when she said them outright. (197)

Beryl of her mother, Clara:
Maybe Berkeley had been right about family--maybe we never survive them, 
or anyone we love. Not in the truest way. My feelings for Clara were tangled at the root, unresolvable. Whether I liked it or not, I would always carry the ghost of her leaving. 
But it also didn't seem right somehow to walk away and ignore her need." (253)

A Swahili phrase:
"A new thing is good, though it be a sore place." (312)
As I have often said, "change is change," and 
even if it is a "good"/positive change, it still requires adaptation. 
It will likely be a bit of a 'sore place' for awhile until the adjustment is complete!

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