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Out Of Africa And 'West With The Night'

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Out Of Africa And 'West With The Night'

Out Of Africa And 'West With The Night'

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You Must Read This is our series where authors talk about a book they love. Author Anne Cherian was born in India. When she took her first trip to the U.S., she was accompanied by a book about a female adventurer. It was Beryl Markham's "West With The Night," and it conjured up a feeling of endless possibility.

ANNE CHERIAN: Ask Americans to name the pioneers of transatlantic flight, and many will come up with Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. But there were others who dared to fly that great distance. And I think the most intriguing member of those early record holders was Beryl Markham. She was a colonial child, born in Britain and raised in Africa, where she met Ernest Hemingway on safari and was rumored to have had an affair with an English prince.

She took up flying at a time when most people hadn't even seen planes, became the only professional pilot in Africa, and in 1936, accepted a challenge to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

In early September, she set off from England in a tiny turquoise and silver plane filled with good luck gifts. She flew for over 21 hours, survived a crash landing on an island near Nova Scotia and went on to write her autobiography, "West With The Night."

I read her book at age 24, while flying in a plane west from India to begin graduate studies in the United States. I was immediately and forever enthralled.

Markham was a woman who wrote about the moments that meant the most to her: hunting barefoot with the Nandi as a child, training race horses, scouting elephants in Africa, and of course, making that daring trip across the Atlantic.

Initially, what intrigued me most about "West With The Night" were the vignettes of her childhood. Growing up in India, I was used to reading stories by Western authors about landscapes and food I did not know.

But here was a young girl whose childhood I could easily imagine, for she, too, had played with servants, spoke a different language outside the house, and killed animals - wild pigs in her case, snakes in mine.

Then there was Markham's portrayal of Africa. Having read foreigners' accounts of India, like Africa, conquered and exoticized, I am quick to sense if a tale is authentic, and Markham's was exactly that.

Africa, she said, could be mystic, wild, a sweltering inferno, a photographer's paradise, a hunter's Valhalla, an escapist's utopia. But to her, it was just home.

Beryl Markham was a woman who went after what she wanted and gave it her all. Her horses won races, and she parlayed her aviation skills learned as a bush pilot into a dark flight across the Atlantic, and when she sat down to write her memoirs, she produced a dazzling book.

I still have my first copy of "West With The Night," now frayed, the pages yellow with age, and read it for the simple beauty of its language, for the vivid description of Africa and for the amazing adventures of a woman ahead of her time.

I also reach for it whenever I worry that my youthful dream of being a writer is as foolish as reaching for the stars. Then, it is always comforting to read about a woman who sat in a small plane, suspended between earth and sky. Why? Because she wanted to and because she could.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Anne Cherian is the author of the novel, "A Good Indian Wife." She recommended "West With The Night" by Beryl Markham for our series You Must Read This.

You can find more favorite book recommendations, or you can comment on this essay, at npr.org.

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