When I read Out of Africa by Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen) I fell in love with the whole story, a true story, of a Danish woman whose beau married another woman in a time and place where such a social demerit would likely leave a woman side-lined for life. This was, of course, mainly true if you were a woman raised in wealthy family. If Karen Blixen did not marry well she would end up being a poor woman, dependent on the kindness of family, a dependency often accompanied by stinginess and resentment.
Karen Blixen was not a woman who wanted, or in fact deserved, to be side-lined. Her life in Africa was a testament to an intelligent and resilient spirit. In Kenya she was not so bound by social rules and was able to be bold, to buck society, and still earn a grudging acceptance and perhaps admiration. But she did marry before she left Denmark and that gave her the proper introduction to such a small colonial society.
If you loved Out of Africa, you will, I am certain, love Circling the Sun by Paula McLain. Here we have a version of the life of Beryl Markham, a child of British colonials who lived in Kenya at around the time that Karen Blixen had her farm. Beryl was much younger than Karen Blixen but their lives overlapped and their spirits were similar.
Beryl’s mother found Kenya intolerable and moved back to England when Beryl was very young. Her father raised and bred horses, thoroughbreds, to send to races all over colonial Africa. For many years no one supervised Beryl’s social development. She had a best friend in the local native Kikuru village and she spent her childhood learning to be horse trainer and a Kikuru warrior, both career goals that it was doubtful a girl could ever fulfill. She had almost no feminine influences in her life until her father brought home a “step-mother”, who he could not marry. There was scandal attached to these activities but there was also a shared recognition among colonials that it was impossible to adhere to the rules of a strict social order in this new, hot, and barely inhabited continent.
Beryl Markham, once she became a young woman, in fact a very young woman, was on her own after the failure of her father’s horse “ranch” and she, as a pretty woman and a fresh face became a target for not so innocent flirtation, gentlemanly admiration, and men who needed wives to run their households. Beryl yearned for security and was as yet unaware of how much she was unsuited to be “the little woman”. The men she married were wrong for her and the men she loved were men who were too enamored of freedom to be attracted to marriage. Beryl met Denys Finch-Hatton, the true love of Karen Blixen’s Kenyan life and that romantic, but illusive man also became Beryl’s deepest love, although impossible to claim as such.
When we meet Beryl Markham she is setting out to fly solo across the Atlantic from England to America. The journey of her life, how she got from being a virtual orphan in Kenya to a famed aviator is as wonderful a story as how Karen Blixen owned a coffee farm in Africa, and overlaps Isak Dineson’s story in some very satisfying ways. In fact it is astonishing that two woman with such unusual accomplishments could come out of such a small community of Europeans so far from home. If you always wanted more Karen, more Denys, more Africa, then you will love this carefully researched and well-written book.
By Nancy Brisson