Memoirs of Remarkable Women
In her latest issue of The Reading Corner, Trilogy at Monarch Dunes member Pam Stolpman highlights the memoirs of two remarkable women.
Though written decades apart – one was first printed in 1942, while the other was published just over a year ago – these books are equally inspiring and important today. Both capture the lives of resourceful, self-reliant, courageous, pioneering women who envisioned their goals and pursued them without hesitation.
Please enjoy this latest selection of magnificent memoirs from The Reading Corner.
West With the Night
By Beryl Markham
West with the Night is Beryl Markham’s memoir of her life in Africa from the age of four, in 1906, when she and her father moved from England to Kenya, to the age of thirty four, in 1936, the year she became the first person to fly solo from England to America. This flight was all the more remarkable because she flew those twenty-one hours against the prevailing winds on a night so dark she lacked even stars to guide her. Markham waits until the final seventeen pages of the memoir to tell the story of that famous flight, yet we don’t find ourselves waiting impatiently for the telling because we so immediately become rapt readers of her tales of growing up in the Kenya of a century ago.
Her home was Nairobi, a barely finished new city, where she was raised by a father who provided her with unquestionable love and affection, but almost no parental supervision. This allowed Markham complete freedom in how she spent her days. She writes vividly about how she loved most the days spent hunting alongside her Nandi friend, Kibii, a boy of her age, either on their own together, or on actual Nandi tribal hunts. The Nandi tribe members, elders included, accepted her presence and valued her help in bringing down game. These early childhood experiences shaped the sense of competence and self reliance that enabled her in late adolescence to become a successful horse trainer, and in her twenties to become a pilot of small planes. She learned to fly with the minimal flight gauges of those times, over a country of such extensive swampland and savannas that there were often no visible landmarks.
Especially when Markham writes of flying – whether ferrying doctors to ill settlers, delivering mail to remote mines, attempting the rescue of downed pilots, or leading hunters on safari – she combines a tactile pleasure in all she sees and does with such an ease and fluency with words that we are transported along with her on every trip she takes, physical and philosophical. It is evident throughout this memoir that Markham is not writing about her accomplishments, but about how the Africa she experienced in those years came to form the meaning of her life. In Markham’s hands, this book becomes many things at once: an adventure story; a story of aviation in its earliest days; an account of horse breeding, training and racing in Africa at its inception; and a philosophical inner monologue of the author’s discovery of her self. West with the Night, infused with Markham’s self-deprecating humor and her light-handed lyrical style, is a pleasure to read from beginning to end.
When this book was first published in 1942, it disappeared under a torrent of World War II news, but it spent forty weeks on the bestseller list when it was reissued in 1983. It was praised by The New York Times as “the sort of book that makes you think human beings can do anything – thrilling reading!” West with the Night, in these later decades, seems again to have been forgotten, which is a great misfortune for a book whose pleasures are as timeless as this one. I’ll confine myself to as few quotes as I can to illustrate the tightly crafted nature of the prose, its lyricism throughout, its humor, and the grace and affection with which Beryl Markham treats Africa. I can only add, as Hemingway wrote to his friends, “I hope you all get this book and read it. It’s a bloody wonderful book!”
Excerpts from West With the Night
…Africa was the breath and life of my childhood. It is still the host of all my darkest fears, the cradle of mysteries always intriguing, but never wholly solved. It is the remembrance of sunlight and green hills, cool water and the yellow warmth of bright mornings. It is as ruthless as any sea, more uncompromising then its own deserts. It is without temperance in its harshness or its favors. It yields to nothing, offering much to men of all races. …But the soul of Africa, its integrity, the slow inexorable pulse of its life, is its own and of such singular rhythm that no outsider, unless steeped from childhood in its endless, even beat, can ever hope to experience it.
Elephant, beyond the fact that their size and conformation are aesthetically more suited to the treading of this earth than our angular informity, have an average intelligence comparable to our own. Of course they are less agile and physically less adaptable than ourselves – nature having developed their bodies in one direction and their brains in another, while human beings, on the other hand, drew from Mr. Darwin’s lottery of evolution both the winning ticket and the stub to match it. This, I suppose, is why we are so wonderful and can make movies and electric razors and wireless sets – and guns with which to shoot the elephant, the hare, clay pigeons, and each other.
What a child does not know and does not want to know of race and colour and class, he learns soon enough as he grows to see each man flipped inexorably into some predestined groove like a penny or a sovereign in a banker’s rack. Kibii, the Nandi boy, was my good friend. Arab Ruta, the same boy, grown to manhood, is my good friend, but the handclasp will be shorter, the smile will not be so eager on his lips, and though the path is for a while the same, he will walk behind me now, when once, in the simplicity of our nonage, we walked together.
We swung over the hills and over the town and back again, and I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch and I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know – that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above or beyond it.
At our backs the storm had already closed like a trap. A ferment of clouds that clotted before a driving wind blacked out our [forward] vision with curtains of rain. The Leopard Moth undertook the challenge with confident gallantry, but when wind velocity reached sixty miles an hour, we approached the sea with the plane flying crabwise. She was like a scrap of trash caught in a gale, and I experienced the sense of futility all pilots must feel when the natural forces that rule this planet reassert their sovereignty (and express their contempt) for Man the Pretender.
Flying at an altitude of a hundred feet, we saw the land break away to the sea, and saw the sea snatch at the wind with white, frustrated hands. The blue Mediterranean was not the Mediterranean of the travel books; it was the sea of Ulysses, with the escaped charges of Aeolus running wild upon it. The Leopard was true to her name; she clawed her way up the steep bank of the storm until at ten thousand [feet] she found its crest. She found a sky so blue and so still that it seemed the impact of a wing might splinter it, and we slid across a surface of white clouds as if the plane were a sleigh running on fresh-fallen snow.
My Beloved World
By Sonia Sotomayor
Sonia Sotomayor, now the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, has written a memoir that follows her life from early childhood through her time as a Federal District Court judge when she was in her late 30s. (Sotomayor was born in 1954). This is not in any way a political book; it is the extraordinary story of how a young Puerto Rican/American girl, raised in public housing by a family that spoke no English, forged a path from the rare bench found in the projects of New York City to a seat on the bench of the highest court in America.
An experience she had at age seven reveals one key to her character, and to the courage required to accomplish what she has. At that time she went through a terrifying emergency hospitalization during which it was discovered that Sotomayor had juvenile diabetes. She recalls how her beloved alcoholic father didn’t trust his shaky hands to give her the insulin shots she needed, and that her mother, a nurse, by necessity worked too many hours to be available each time a shot was needed. (In 1961, at least in the Sotomayor household, this was a complicated procedure that included sterilizing the needles in boiling water on their gas stove). Arguments over the shots became just one more of the frequent arguments Sotomayor’s parents had, though she recalls just as clearly as the arguments, her parents’ devotion to each other and to her. In the end, her mother had to teach her how to give herself the shots. Sotomayor tells us, “The last thing I wanted was for them to fight about me.” In order to survive, she’d have to learn to manage her disease on her own, which she did, learning that self-reliance would often be the only avenue through which she could achieve her goals. Her father died when she was nine; from then on she had only her single, often absent mother, whose long work hours allowed them to live barely above the poverty line for many years. Much later, when someone asks Sotomayor if she thinks it will be difficult to become a judge – the dream she has by the time she is in her teens – she answers that she has spent her whole life learning to do things that were hard for her.
That Sotomayor learns early in life to take care of herself is not such an unusual story for any child who grows up poor and with a single parent. But belief in her own ability to take care of herself very soon extended into an instinct to take care of others, as well. This trait, too, developed in early childhood and as a direct result of family experience. During the summers of Sotomayor’s childhood, when she couldn’t stay at her grandmother’s house, she would often accompany her Aunt Aurora to the place she worked as a seamstress. She remembers the building they would enter as a “vision of hell: steaming hot, dark and airless, with the door shut tight and the windows blackened.” Sotomayor didn’t know that the building was blackened to hide the fact that the women working there were illegally employed. Only later would she understand that “all who were working there were breaking the law. But they weren’t criminals. They were doing what they had to do to survive.” What she did know at the time was that no one could breathe in there; she herself would watch all day for a chance to race to the door whenever it opened to “stick her head out for a breath of fresh air.” She asks her aunt why they couldn’t just prop the door open all day, and receives the answer “they just can’t.” Sotomayor wanted her aunt and the other women to be able do the work they all seemed happy to be doing, but in a building filled with light and fresh air. One critic has called this memoir “a powerful defense of empathy,” going on to say “[Sotomayor] has spent her life imagining her way into the hearts of those around her.” Sotomayor, herself, writes in the later pages of this memoir that what has driven her, always, is her desire to “do for others, to help make things right for them.” She was less than ten years old when she first began to dream of opening a door for others.
It may seem unusual for a child to have such dreams, or to have already decided, by fifteen, that she wanted to become a judge, but the truth and strength of these desires are borne out by the events of her childhood, as well as her dedication to learning English and educating herself through voracious reading in those years. Further proof lies in the course of studies she chooses in college and later in the kinds of cases she finds most satisfying, first as a District Attorney, and finally as a District Court Judge, still in her hometown of New York City. What stands out, in a memoir that never has a slow or tedious passage, is Sotomayor’s fierce determination, and her unusual sensitivity to the needs of others, both of which made her a successful public defender and a tireless advocate in such diverse causes as helping enable women much like her mother to obtain mortgages in the same way a man could, and aiding her fellow Puerto Ricans and other minorities to be treated on the job with the same fairness and pay as white men and women doing the same jobs.
The reason this is not ever a dry compilation of achievements, however unique, lies in the genuine warmth of Sotomayor’s heart, an innate generosity of spirit that, combined with her down-to-earth, practical values of hard work, made the realization of her dreams possible. This is a wonderful story of courage, stamina, and a joyous gratefulness for having been born now, and in this country, America, her truly “beloved world.”
Trilogy at Monarch Dunes member Pam Stolpman regularly reviews bookshelf-worthy reads for her fellow Trilogy members. Type “Reading Corner” in the search bar above to view past book reviews from her blog series.