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“Circling the Sun” by Paula McLain is a novel based on the life of Beryl Markham. Ms. Markham was born in England to Charles and Clara Clutterbach, English gentry.
The family moved to Njoro (then Bristish East Africa) when Beryl was four. Her mother abandoned the family shortly after their arrival, returning to England, and Beryl was raised on a farm by her father, an accomplished horse trainer. Native families of the Kipsigis tribe, who lived around the farm, also cared for her.
Her best friend was Kibii, whose family and tribe took Beryl into their fold. She had almost no formal education, but she worked well with the horses and loved her life on her father’s farm.
The author carefully researched Ms. Markham’s African childhood as well as her emotional and romantic life. The story reveals the most important relationships in her life: her best friend from childhood, now known as Arab Ruta; her three disastrous marriages and her affair with Denys Finch-Hatton, who at the same time was involved with her friend Karen Blixen, better known under her pseudonym as
This relationship ended with Mr. Finch- Hatton’s death when his plane plunged to the ground and burst into flames.
An aviation pioneer, in 1936, Ms. Markham was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from East to West. She was also the first licensed female racehorse trainer, proving herself in a male-dominated world. She led her life in her own way, accomplishing much, but often with painful repercussions.
Ms. McLain has done an excellent job of capturing time and place and the inner spirit of this woman as well as colonial and native life in Africa during the early years of the 20th century.
This novel is filled with interesting characters: struggling farmers, tribesman, expats, drunks, aristocrats, husbands, lovers and adventurers. But it remains Beryl Markham’s story.