Thursday, June 30, 2016

Beryl Markham: Author of the Best Dog Story Ever?

Some things are obviously quite subjective, but if I were asked to name the greatest dog story ever told, I would say that it was written by Kenyan aviatrix Beryl Markham about a cross-bred bull terrier by the name of Buller.

Buller was Beryl's childhood dog, and the story takes place when she is about 12 or 13, and decides to go on a warthog hunting expedition with two local tribesmen.

Suffice it to say that this is a hunting dog story of the first order. In fact, it is such a good story, and so well told, that when Ernest Hemmingway read it, he wrote to his editor and friend Maxwell Perkins:

"Did you read Beryl Markham's book, 'West with the Night'? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. . . But this girl ... can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. 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. So, you have to take as truth the early stuff about when she was a child which is absolutely superb. She omits some very fantastic stuff which I know about which would destroy much of the character of the heroine; but what is that anyhow in writing?"

It was years after first reading West with the Night -- and after a fair bit of my touting her as a first-rate female writer -- that I discovered Beryl Markham probably did not write her memoire at all.

The stories are all true, as Hemingway noted, and Beryl Markham really did lead an extraordinary life (she was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic).

That said, it now appears the book itself was at least partially ghostwritten by Raoul Schuhmacher, her third husband, who was also an accomplished journalist.

But so what?

Whoever wrote the book, the stories are terrific and every bit as well told as Hemingway suggests.

If you have not read West with Night, you have missed a very good thing.

If you are going to the book store to pick up a copy (and if you do, you will thank me later), you might as well pick up a copy of Hemingway's The Green Hills of Africa while you are at it.

Both books should be read once every 10 years your entire life. They really are that good.

And for those who love this kind of thing, check out the brutal life and "insanely glamorous love triangle" between Bery Markham, Karen Blixen, and Denys Finch Hatton.


geonni banner said...

Have you ever read "Jock of the Bushveld"?

Julie said...

You are the only other person I have run across who even knows of West With The Night, let alone clearly appreciates excellent writing. I've owned this book for many years and read it again about every other year. I do not really care if Beryl did not write it, she seemed the sort to take credit for it whether she wrote it or not. Nonetheless, it is just excellent. Makes one feel that you are right there in the telling.
Thanks for reminding it me it is about time to take it off the shelf and indulge again!