Paula McLain’s “Circling the Sun,” is the story of horse trainer/aviator/writer, Beryl Markham. It recalls the remarkable accomplishments of this under sung woman far ahead of her time in Colonial Kenya and explores her relationship with renowned Denys Finch Hatton, safari hunter, and Karen Blixen, author (as Isak Dineson) of “Out of Africa.”
Beryl’s father sold everything in England in order to buy a farm in Kenya, but Beryl’s mother could not cope with the stark cultural differences and returned to England with son, Dickie, leaving Beryl behind to be raised by her father.
Her father, ill equipped to raise a young girl, was always busy with the hard work of running a farm, so she was frequently left alone and spent a great deal of time with members of a neighboring tribe. She learned their languages and customs and made friends that would be with her for life. The realities of African living shaped Beryl's character and 100 years ago, forged a strength and determination in her that would be unusual even for a woman of today.
“Circling the Sun” tells us that Beryl’s freedom to do what she wanted came with an incredible price. The standards by which she lived in Africa, coming and going as she pleased, affected all her relationships and her view of the world. She was a natural at training horses, but had to battle at every turn to be recognized and accepted. Nothing was ever easy.
Interacting in polite Colonial Kenyan society was beyond her understanding. She had no wish to be judged and yet, she was targeted unfairly merely because she was a female. Her casual disregard of the conventional separation of men and women caused her great pain when she attempted to navigate the minefields of marriage, society, and motherhood, even when Royals were involved.
Markham is remembered as the first woman to fly non-stop across the Atlantic from East to West, but “Circling the Sun’ spends most of the book on her time as a horse trainer and her interactions with Blixen and Hatton. They played an incredible part in shaping the woman she would become and the choices she would make that placed her in the history books. They were a complicated threesome. Hatton never married either of the women, but had a relationship with both.
The colors and sounds of Africa are a major character in the book and give us a sweeping sense of the majestic nature of the continent and the customs of native Africans. McLain paints a fabulous landscape that keeps us enthralled and gives us a peek into why so many English expats were drawn to the place: Money to be made, worlds to experience, the excitement/danger of safaris, creating something permanent out of the untamed land.
Circumstances and the people in her life shaped her, but Markham could not have become the bush pilot or transatlantic pilot she did, without that incredible setting that set her free.
A work of historical fiction not to be missed.
Please visit www.paulamclain.com for more information about McLain, “Circling the Sun,” and her earlier acclaimed bestseller, “The Paris Wife.”