Bookinista: ‘Circling the Sun’ a delicious read
August 7, 2015
Long before blissed-out residents called Eagle County the Happy Valley, an East African Happy Valley raised the bar for wild-and-crazy escapism in the name of civilization. British and Anglo-Irish immigrants arrived in what is now Kenya with boatloads of cash, planning to cultivate vast holdings (and locals), usually recreating themselves while running from failure during the sunset of the British Empire.
When the book "Out of Africa," by Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (aka Isak Dinesen) was made into the 1985 blockbuster starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, the shenanigans of this aristocratic bunch exploded on the public radar. Much has been written about this place and time and the people who populated it, but little is more readable than "Circling the Sun," by Paula McLain.
"Circling the Sun" is a fictional account of a very real person: horse trainer, aviatrix and author Beryl Markham. The story begins and ends during her pioneering east-west solo flight across the Atlantic. Between the first and last chapters, the graceful backstory — or perhaps an epic flashback in a plane stalling toward the ocean — unravels about twenty-eight-year-old Markham's path to the cockpit.
A Wild Child
Markham grows up unsupervised, a wild child with space to roam. Her father is a successful horse breeder and trainer who literally loses the family farm. Her mother is disengaged, departing for England when Markham is young. Without maternal influence, attempts to domesticate Markham fail, and she very much lives by her own rules. Her lack of civility doesn't deter suitors or lovers, although the instability of her early years shades affairs of her heart.
In "Circling the Sun," Markham's life is one of contrasts. Her childhood companion, an African boy named Kikii, lives dangerously in accord with tribal custom, gathering experiences that will transform him into a great warrior like his father. Markham's childhood liberties stem from her value as a farm hand and irrelevance to those preoccupied with their own dramas.
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Markham's uninhibited choices, even one as practical as riding astride instead of sidesaddle in London, are normal in the Happy Valley set. When she travels, they trigger gossip among conforming Brits, isolating her further.
Her infatuation with Denys Finch-Hatton, otherwise engaged with Baroness Blixen, exposes childlike emotions, although she is a woman of the world in every sense. But Markham is at her best as a child: observant, courageous and wily. She is a survivor in a land where survival isn't assumed.
Even though "Circling the Sun" highlights characters that are well-drafted window-dressing, the story is Africa herself. Author McLain describes customs and landscapes, animals and plant life. Her details are enjoyable instead of overwhelming because well-timed descriptive prose conveys the foreignness of time and place. Because of these writing skills, readers experience British mores fraying in the free-for-all surrounding Nairobi and throughout East Africa, and discover that Africa is "uncivilizing" the intruders who came to tame the continent.
"Circling the Sun" is delicious reading, a journey to a timeless place that happens to be inhabited temporarily by a curiously self-destructive group of immigrants.
McLain is the author of the 2011 bestseller "The Paris Wife," a story of Earnest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. "Circling the Sun," published by Random House LLC is available at The Bookworm of Edwards and other booksellers.
Eagle County resident NLB Horton (NLBHorton.com) is an award-winning author of two successful works of international suspense, "When Camels Fly" and "The Brothers' Keepers." Both are available at The Bookworm of Edwards and at other booksellers, and her third novel will be released in 2016.