Circling the Sun by Paula McLain is this month’s library book discussion group (meeting will be next Thursday; it’s early this month thanks to Easter, so I felt like I was scrambling to get this read). I read the little blurb in my library’s quarterly newsletter and learned the basics before checking out an ebook from my library’s website: it’s historical fiction set in Kenya, about a woman who was unconventional for her time. Probably not something that I would have picked up on my own, but that’s one of the reasons I decided to join this group. Always good to keep testing yourself and expanding your boundaries.
Circling the Sun portrays the life and times of Beryl Markham, a successful female horse trainer in an era where women didn’t do that, the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west, and, later in life, an author. She grew up with only her father, her mother having left Kenya for England with Beryl’s younger brother in tow, and spent most of her childhood with Kipii, a boy from the Kipsigis tribe who lived nearby. Her years of running wild, barely receiving any education whatsoever, molded her into a headstrong woman who struggled against each and every convention of the day.
When Beryl’s father’s farm fails, her choices are either to leave the land she loves behind, or marry an older neighbor she barely knows (she’s only sixteen at the time). Beryl can’t imagine living anywhere else, and thus begins her disastrous marriage to Jock Purves. It’s not long before she leaves him behind and works as a horse trainer for her father’s friend and former neighbor. While Beryl does find success with her horses, colonial Kenyan society has a difficult time accepting a woman who doesn’t fit into the conventional mold of a society wife and Beryl finds herself starting over again and again.
Interspersed through Beryl’s ill-fated long-term relationship to Frank and second marriage to Mansfield Markham (during which she gives birth to a son; according to the book, the father basically steals him from her on the threat of ruining her reputation permanently, but from what I’m reading online, the actual history may differ) is her friendship with Karen Blixen, the woman who would later become the well-known author Isak Dinesen. Both Beryl and Karen maintain long-term romantic entanglements with Denys Finch-Hatton; although Ms. McLain notes afterwards that there’s no historical evidence that the two women ever engaged in a confrontation over this, she does takes some liberty and invents one.
I’m not sure what to think about this book. This is the second book I’ve read this year that features white people in Africa, and I kind of feel like I need a deep, long read of #ownvoices books in order to wash off the stain of colonialism. I know that it’s history, but there’s only so much I can take of reading about people coming into a land that isn’t theirs and turning the native inhabitants into second-class citizens (if that). That’s not the fault of this book or the author and in no way reflects on this book as literature, but…oof.
Beryl’s life is definitely intriguing, and I think in many ways she did the best with what she had. Both parents abandoned her at early ages, leaving her with few skills to support herself; poverty always loomed around the corner; the gossipy colonial society in which she lived was quick to turn on anyone who stepped even the slightest bit out of line. I found almost everything about the era and society in which she lived deeply unpleasant and suffocating, and it didn’t seem like any of the other women in the story fared much better than Beryl. Every woman had to make deep concessions and compromises in order to survive (maybe this is why 1920’s colonial Kenya looked disturbingly like a sex-obsessed 1970’s key party??? Seriously, I was NOT expected that and was…kind of weirded out, to be honest. Not in a sexual freedom kind of way- do your thing, man- but in a ‘DISEASES! DISEASES, PEOPLE!!!’ kind of way. If you read the wikipedia entry on Karen Blixen, it does talk about her contracting syphilis from her husband, which led to long-term problems), and seriously, the subtitle of this could be “Men Are Power-Hungry, Misogynistic Jerks.” The only decent male character in this story was, I think, Ruta (Beryl’s childhood friend Kipii, who took on a new name as he reached adulthood). Circling the Sun is well-written, but I think I’m just not a fan of reading about this particular era, and upper-crust colonials in general (even typing out that phrase, I’m wrinkling my nose. Ugh). In any case, this should make for some interesting discussions next week at the library.
How do you handle reading some of the more unsavory bits of history? I’ve got a stack of library books that will fulfill some of the Read Harder Challenge requirements, so I’m hoping those feel a little better than this.