A Woman Who Attempts the Impossible
Years ago, I fell in love with a movie called Out of Africa. It starred Robert Redford and Meryl Streep and was about the relationship of safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and author Karen Blixen, who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen in 1920s colonial Kenya. A woman on their periphery was Beryl Markham, the heroine of a new novel, Circling the Sun by Paula McLain. The cover alone had me, but when I found out it was an extension of Out of Africa, I knew I had to read it.
I’ve written the book recommendation (below), which has gone live this morning at GreatNewBooks.org as well, but here on my personal blog, I have a bit more to say. I love books about women overcoming impossible challenges. Is that because I can identify? I don’t know. But I do know I admire strong women who choose to silence fear.
The original woman I remember admiring for her sense of adventure and complete fearlessness is my maternal grandmother. She grew up in a house full of women, with a few (very tall) sisters and a mother who survived her husband (their father), who died at a young age.
My grandmother decided in her early teens that she would learn to fly, so she took on a job at an amusement park to pay for her flying lessons. Soon, she earned her pilot’s license, and decided to apply for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in WWII. She was slight in build and apparently on the lower threshold for the weight requirement. She once told me that the morning of her physical, she ate 2 bunches of bananas to try to weigh more. Apparently, it worked.
My grandmother did fly for the WASPs, and throughout her life afterward, she continued to do things most women didn’t do. I love her for that, for setting the example that women can do the same things that men can. And why not?
It’s just another reason why I had to read Circling the Sun, because it opens up that world — it surpassed my expectations.
Okay, for my recommendation:
Circling the Sun
Circling the Sun is a sweeping story about the complicated relationship between an untamable woman, born in Britain but raised in the wilds of Africa, and her love for an untamable continent.
When Beryl Clutterbuck arrives in Africa in 1904 at age three, her family set up a farm in Njoro, in British East African Protectorate, stripped of proper civilization to live in a land with no fences or borders, where huts lacked doors and plumbing. Beryl’s mother decides after two years that “she didn’t want to shoot snakes or her dinner,” and left with Dickie, Beryl’s younger brother. Not long after, the nearby Kipsigi tribe took her in when she was “thin and knock-kneed with unruly white-blonde hair,” and soon, she says, “This was certain. I belonged on the farm and in the bush … For as long as childhood lasted it was a heaven fitted exactly to me. A place I knew by heart. The one place in the world I’d been made for.”
As a teen, Beryl has to face her father’s downturn in luck as a farmer and horseman, and is forced to make a choice: marry and stay, or move to South Africa on her father’s coattails. She chooses to marry and finds herself trapped for the first time in her life. To escape the boundary and restriction, Beryl becomes a horse trainer like her father, something no woman does. It is dangerous and she excels, wins races, and her reputation builds. Her husband becomes angry at what her reputation and choices are doing for his name. It is then that her path begins to cross with a different crowd, Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, the characters of Out of Africa.
In the novel, Beryl at one point says to Karen:
“You wouldn’t want to be free, just on your own?”
“To do what?”
“Live, I suppose. Make your own choices or mistakes, without anyone telling you what you can and can’t do.”
She shook her head as if I’d said something absurd. “Society does that, darling, even if there isn’t a strapping husband on hand…”
My favorite aspect of the novel is found in McLain’s subtleties, her emphasis on Beryl’s unquenchable spirit, the way she exposes Beryl’s heart and the way she breaks gender lines.
No woman flew, but Beryl did. No proper British girl ran with the African natives. No woman tamed, trained, and raced horses. No woman stays in Africa, even her own mother — perhaps that is what keeps Beryl there.
Her story raises the question: What does it take for us to do something unexpected, something impossible, attempt things never done before?
She begins to find freedom when she meets someone with her own wild heart, who treats her as an equal. It is this Beryl pursues, the match she finds in Denys, who encourages her love for adventure, and is the one who gets her into flying. She becomes the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, East to West. She is fearful, yet fearless. It is this that the novel is about — how one woman in a time when no woman attempts the impossible, alone — challenges herself to try and does the impossible. It is about untaming our civilized hearts, and listening to what life can bring, if only we listen and try.