Circling the Sun

By Paula McLain. Life in Africa for a bold woman who thrives on adventure, passion, and scandal

Story: Diane Dean

One of the 17 books author Paul McLain researched in order to write her bestseller, “Circling the Sun” was “West with the Night.” It’s the story of risk-taker, trailblazer, daredevil, and a self-destructive woman named Beryl Markham. She was the first licensed female horse trainer in Africa and a bush pilot who flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean. “West with the Night” was Markham’s memoir, written in 1942, and reprinted in the 1980s.

This fictional autobiography follows Beryl’s life as she was raised more by the tribal village than her parents in colonial Kenya. She had many romances, but none matched her obsession with big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, though he was not hers to have. He belonged to Karen Blixen, who, under the pen name Isak Dinesen, wrote “Out of Africa.” Beryl encounters many people and influences in her life. As a friend, Blixen’s words of wisdom were, “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.”

Beryl took many risks. She is quoted as saying, “You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself.” It did not seem Beryl thrived on adventure. While the Spanish flu, droughts, and wars were part of the times, Beryl and her friends used cocaine and said, “Pass the brandy.” Her friends advised her on many things, but Beryl consistently defied society’s expectations.

Judy Linker and Ann Schooley conducted the book club discussion. Members were asked to consider the many windows of Markham’s life. Abandoned by her mother as a child and living with a detached father in Kenya, she survived an attack by a lion. This may have made her feel invincible. As a teen, her father forced her to marry a man she didn’t love. Her second husband, a Brit and a mama’s boy, may have allowed the Queen of England to pay Beryl to leave. Her third husband divorced her for infidelity. One book club member described Beryl as, “Someone you would invite to your party, but hang on to your husband.”

Along with Africa, Beryl’s love affair with Finch Hatton (played by Robert Redford in the movie) dominates the story. He shared “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman with her because it expressed the “self-sufficiency and free-spiritedness” that he saw in her. Beryl relished that wildness in both of them.

About the Author

Paula McLain is quoted as saying, “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.” Abandoned by her own parents, McLain and her sisters were wards of the court in California. She could relate to some of Markham’s feelings and knew the experience of trying to support herself. Eventually, McLain received a master’s of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan. She resides in Cleveland with her family.

Member Comments

This book is historical fiction with the author’s interpretation of the characters, the conversations, and events. I found the writing itself incredibly engrossing, and the British-historical fiction makes me want to read the true story.

—Pam Sherman, Santo Domingo

Another well-written, absorbing story by Paula McLain! Beryl Markham is an author’s dream character, so full of life and yet utterly flawed. I would love to spend an evening or two with Beryl, but she could never become a close friend.

—Kathy Porter, Rio Ponderosa

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