Two years after she passed away, I finally read her favorite book, which, I must tell you, is one way to feel close with someone after they've gone, especially someone so avid a reader. I imagined which passages she liked, and which ways she'd connected with the protagonist. There aren't many women I've met brave enough to fly small planes over the African bush, but let me tell you, my mother-in-law was one of them.West With the Night stunned me with its beautiful prose...and then days later, its enormous controversy. I've pasted an excerpt below, and a link to read more.
The Last Book I Loved: West With the Night
Her mother was a nurse, shot in World War II in Nepal. She—my mother-in-law—was an Ivy League-educated, motorcycle-driving, garden-planting veterinarian in Vermont… with a pilot’s license. When she passed away after a bout with cancer, two weeks after the birth of my first child, I decided to read her favorite book, Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. It was, I figured, a book for brave women.
Only I didn’t read it. For two years.
My husband and I recently bought the Vermont farmhouse he grew up in and began to move enormous boxes of his mother’s books. One afternoon I found Markham’s memoir hiding beneath stacks of sci-fi and literary fiction.
At first I wasn’t drawn in by the sepia-toned photograph of the dour woman with high cheekbones and lipstick clad in an aviation cap. Beryl looks like the kind of self-important, gin-soaked, snake-tongued woman you’d avoid at a 1940s cocktail party—as though she might cut you with a bowie knife if you spilled chardonnay on her blouse.Then I read the blurb on the back of the book by none other than Hemingway, taken from a letter to Maxwell Perkins:
“…As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer…she can write rings around us all… The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true… I wish you would get it and read it because it is a really a bloody wonderful book.”
All this praise from Papa for a woman? (Of note, the part he mentioned about Markham being a “high-grade bitch” was omitted from the blurb.)
And if Papa’s slobbering wasn’t enough to hold my attention, the prose in the first chapter of West with the Night was. The first pages made me ache with writer’s envy… that colorful life, the author’s elegant and worldly detachment posited so crisply on the page...Read More