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Old 03-19-2015, 10:36 PM   #1
WT Sharpe
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March 2015 Discussion: West with the Night (spoilers)

The time has come to discuss the January 2015 MobileRead Book Club selection, West with the Night by Beryl Markham. What did you think?
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Old 03-20-2015, 12:29 AM   #2
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I have had a paper copy of this on my desk and been done with my previous book for a week, but came down with a nasty bug (104 DegF temp yesterday = ER) and I am a bit loopy from my meds. Hopefully I can get on track by the weekend.

I have updated the MR Selections list with this thread and the April nomination thread and am checking out of this one till I get a chance to at least open the book up and focus a little.
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Old 03-20-2015, 08:26 AM   #3
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One question that kept recurring to me as I read this, Is how far can the art of memoir stray over the line of fiction? And does it matter?

I'm going to leave the authorship question aside, for now.
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Old 03-20-2015, 10:02 AM   #4
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One question that kept recurring to me as I read this, Is how far can the art of memoir stray over the line of fiction? And does it matter?

I'm going to leave the authorship question aside, for now.
I thought about that as I read the book, especially after such comments on Goodreads about how the author was a "legend in her own mind" and etc., but decided to read the book as straightforward literature and came away feeling that this was one hell of a good yarn. How much is true I have no idea; I assume that most, if not all of it, is. Moreover, it didn't strike me as braggadocio, though I'm sure the author had a healthy supply of self-defense confidence.
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Old 03-20-2015, 10:17 AM   #5
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I found her attitude toward Paddy to be revealing. After the lion nearly killed her, she still referred to him as a good lion who had done what he could about being a tame lion and refused to condemn him for his "one mistake" in which she was, in the words of Bishon Singh, "moderately eaten by the large lion."
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Old 03-20-2015, 11:29 AM   #6
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I thought about that as I read the book, especially after such comments on Goodreads about how the author was a "legend in her own mind" and etc., but decided to read the book as straightforward literature and came away feeling that this was one hell of a good yarn. How much is true I have no idea; I assume that most, if not all of it, is. Moreover, it didn't strike me as braggadocio, though I'm sure the author had a healthy supply of self-defense confidence.
There are some things I know to be untrue and others I merely suspect were created for effect. From the beginning, art trumps accuracy, when she creates an idyll with only herself and her father, she ignores the presence of her brother and a governess and nearby cousins.

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I found her attitude toward Paddy to be revealing. After the lion nearly killed her, she still referred to him as a good lion who had done what he could about being a tame lion and refused to condemn him for his "one mistake" in which she was, in the words of Bishon Singh, "moderately eaten by the large lion."
I know she was a product of her time and class, but one wishes she were more enlightened about the Africans, at least in retrospect. It's troubling that she celebrates how she violated sacred ritual by partaking in the blood of the bull before the boar hunt, for example. This is one of those cases where I'm a little doubtful of her veracity. Surely the Africans can't have welcomed it. So did she make it up, or were they powerless to object when the bwana's daughter insisted?
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Old 03-20-2015, 11:56 AM   #7
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It's hard to fault her for the time and attitudes she was brought up in. And it's clear from what she wrote, and what others have written since, that she was raised rather more by Africa than by her father. And certainly her "governess" had no impact at all except to cause her to live in a separate building from her father from a very early age.

As for accuracy? In re-reading this book for this discussion, and also reading the two somewhat reliable biographies, it's clear to me that the stories are, in their essentials, true. Are some embellished? Probably. But the heart and intent of them are true, IMO.

Certainly the story of Paddy is true in all important parts, though the actual amount of damage to her is unclear. On that, however, we have only to look at the events in the Las Vegas ring several years ago to be reminded how very much "tame" big cats are still very much wild animals.

As for the flying -- this is what amazes me. At a time when "instruments" were a compass and little else, she would fly across hours of African landscape to a spot with little if anything in the way of distinguishing landmarks. The mental calculations of distance, time, speed and leeway required are non-trivial. And she couldn't just plug it all in to her HP calculator, much less her GPS.

She was the first woman with a commercial pilot's license, and the first person to fly from England to North America the hard way. Oh, and by the way, flew back and forth to England from Africa more than the once described in the book.

Ultimately, however, what matters to me about the book, and why I nominated it for this month, is that it is first and foremost about Africa at a particular point in time. OK, not the Africa of the Masai, Nandi or Kikuyu, certainly, but certainly still Africa. It's her love of Africa that comes through everywhere. And her ability to tell a story is undoubted. This really isn't a story about Beryl Markham as much as it's a story about Kenya at the time of British East Africa.
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Old 03-22-2015, 11:35 AM   #8
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OK, since everyone went quiet -- here's a question for folks. What did you think of Beryl's description of her trip to England in the Gypsy Moth? Here we are at the cusp of WWII, with Mussolini firmly in power, and the whole world on the edge. Travelling anywhere then was tricky, and certainly through that area. I found the descriptions fascinating, but really have no feel for how accurate they really are. Clearly they had their basis in facts, but whether they're a description of a single trip, or an amalgam of trips, is less clear to me.
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Old 03-23-2015, 02:33 AM   #9
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Finally finished this book. it was quite fascinating. Others have already said many things I wanted to say about the book. One thing that really intrigued me was relationship between daughter and father. Thinking about the time and the place, I would have thought Beryl's father to be a little conservative. but either this was not covered or he really was a very progressive at least for his own daughter.
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Old 03-23-2015, 06:52 AM   #10
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An interesting point, din155. Beryl's father wasn't particularly conservative, in the sense that none of the young British who homesteaded in Kenya was particularly conservative. But more than that, I think he wanted a son, got Beryl, and went with it. And when Beryl proved as good with horses as he was, she became as much a partner as daughter in the horse training.

Understand that both Beryl and her father were each, in their own time, by far the most successful racehorse breeders of Kenya, a country and a crowd both quite race mad.
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Old 03-23-2015, 07:41 AM   #11
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An interesting point, din155. Beryl's father wasn't particularly conservative, in the sense that none of the young British who homesteaded in Kenya was particularly conservative. But more than that, I think he wanted a son, got Beryl, and went with it. And when Beryl proved as good with horses as he was, she became as much a partner as daughter in the horse training.
You may be right. There were a few glimpses of some restrictions when Beryl had to sneak away for hunting but those could just be for safety of a young kid rather than being a girl.
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Old 03-23-2015, 09:00 AM   #12
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There's a back story that doesn't appear in the book. Her father brought in a governess, "Mrs. Orchardson", who ended up being his mistress and eventually his wife. Beryl and she were not on speaking terms, even many years later, and she refused to set foot in the house on the farm. Instead, she lived in her own native-style mud rondoval. Her escape and sneaking was to avoid Mrs. Orchardson, who she still referred to nearly 80 years later as "that bloody woman".
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Old 03-23-2015, 09:06 AM   #13
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Aah..thank you, I wasn't aware of that.
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Old 03-23-2015, 09:17 AM   #14
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It's hard to fault her for the time and attitudes she was brought up in. And it's clear from what she wrote, and what others have written since, that she was raised rather more by Africa than by her father. And certainly her "governess" had no impact at all except to cause her to live in a separate building from her father from a very early age.
Given that her governess also physically abused her, to the extent of beating her savagely with a bull whip, I'd argue that she, plus the abandonment by Beryl's mother, was the root cause of Beryl's obvious and pronounced misogyny.

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As for accuracy? In re-reading this book for this discussion, and also reading the two somewhat reliable biographies, it's clear to me that the stories are, in their essentials, true. Are some embellished? Probably. But the heart and intent of them are true, IMO.

I agree that much of Beryl's story is true (although as I said, I have my doubts about the boar hunt); however, I think the accuracy of the Lovell biography is called into question by the authorship issue, where the facts were misrepresented to make it impossible for Schumacher to have ghosted West with the Night. For me, Trzebinski's case is unassailable.

Oddly enough, what the authorship issue here most evokes for me is the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, where it seems highly likely that while Laura provided the raw material, her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, actually wrote them (there is some disagreement about the extent of Lane's input; I tend toward the "it's obvious that Lane wrote them" end of the spectrum). But while people read them as biography, the Little House books are classed as fiction. From what I know of the literary works in both cases and the actual biographies behind them, the level of "truth" seems roughly the same. Which brings me back to my question of just how much embroidery and "art" are allowed before a memoir crosses the line into fiction?

I admit it, I have issues with an unacknowledged ghost writer who did not even see the Africa he described. And what was widely hailed as a feminist tract when it was re-released in 1983 loses much force if a man actually molded it and wrote it. Obviously MMV and does about this.

One more issue that comes up with me in regard to West is to what extent it might have been conceived and influenced by Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, which preceeded it by several years. Obviously the white community in the Happy Valley was small and the same people would recur; moreover, Beryl stalked Dinesen's lover Denys Finch Hatton for years before becoming his mistress shortly before his death. Still, I wonder if West with the Night was trying to capitalize a bit on Out of Africa. Beryl was obviously a private person (she didn't share her affairs with royalty, for example, or other notables) and that she'd give such promiinence in her memoir to both Finch Hatton and Dinesen's husband Bror Blixen, seems suggestive to me.

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There's a back story that doesn't appear in the book. Her father brought in a governess, "Mrs. Orchardson", who ended up being his mistress and eventually his wife. Beryl and she were not on speaking terms, even many years later, and she refused to set foot in the house on the farm. Instead, she lived in her own native-style mud rondoval. Her escape and sneaking was to avoid Mrs. Orchardson, who she still referred to nearly 80 years later as "that bloody woman".
You beat me to this. I think Clutterbuck's attitude toward Beryl was essentially just neglect, not enlightened. He did have a son, after all, and never seemed that exercised about keeping either his wife or son in Africa (and Beryl's brother was there for a significant part of her growing up). And when he wanted to leave Africa for Peru, Beryl was on her own, at about 19. I think he just didn't care very much.
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Old 03-23-2015, 12:30 PM   #15
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Oh, I think he cared as much as he could -- after all, Beryl wasn't a horse. And apparently that was just fine with Beryl. And keep in mind that when she was on her own at 19, she had already been married 2-3 years previously. (And THAT was certainly a disaster.)

I still haven't found my copy of the Trzebinski book, so didn't re-read it this time. And you know, I honestly don't care who wrote it. It's a lovely book that compelling evokes a time and place and people. I actually think Hemingway's comment on the book (and Beryl) is pretty much spot on. And I'm really glad to have a chance to re-read it from the perspective of 18 more years, and having actually been to Kenya. I just wish I had a usable copy of the Donada Peters reading of this book! (I have one, but it's on cassette.)
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