Beryl Markham

Fans of Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife—her delicious first-person novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson—will be glad to hear that her new work of historical fiction, Circling the Sun (Ballantine Books, July 28th) is just as good, if not better.

You might not think you have much interest in the life of early aviatrix Beryl Markham (1902–1986), but McLain may well prove you wrong. This is a remarkable, action-filled life story, and the terrific storytelling more than does it justice.

Circling the SunA prologue set in September 1936 has our heroine setting off from the airfield in Abingdon, England, the first woman to achieve a solo east–west crossing of the Atlantic. The entire novel, then, is almost like an internal monologue, as her life passes back before her eyes during the fraught journey.

Summoning up her courage, she reminds herself that when it comes to flying (or to living life in general), “You can’t chart a course around anything you’re afraid of. You can’t run from any part of yourself, and it’s better you can’t. Sometimes I’ve thought it’s only our challenges that sharpen us, and change us, too.”

There were a number of challenges that shaped Markham’s early life. Long before she ever thought of flying across the Atlantic, she was Beryl Clutterbuck, raised in Kenya by her horse trainer father in the early twentieth century after her mother abandoned the family. At age 16, she became Mrs. Jock Purves—a mistake of a marriage if ever there was one—and a second marriage hardly turned out any better. Still, Markham went on to become one of Africa’s only female horse trainers, and its first professional female pilot.