Have you ever felt as if you were born in the wrong era?
I have an inexplicable love of both ‘20s jazz and ‘70s disco music, and often joke that I was born in the wrong decade. But, I’ve never had the experience of feeling I was born “long before my time.” Even though I’ve broken some conventions and chosen some of the less well-worn paths through life, there was always a seemingly fearless pioneer who walked before me. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy reading stories about trailblazing women, to learn how it feels to break through expectations and be the first.
I recently finished Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun, a fictional memoir of Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west, and the first person, male or female, to make the non-stop trip from England to North America. She earned that distinction in 1936, when aviation was still the sport of daredevils. Markham was certainly a woman born before her time, and yet her flying is only one aspect of her life that set her apart.
Abandoned by her mother at a young age, Markham was raised by her father among the local Kipsigis people, where she learned the skills, if not the status of moran, or warrior. She was a wild child by the standards of the day, refusing to be traditionally schooled or dress “like a girl.” But her wild adventures came to an abrupt halt when her father’s farm collapsed and he was forced to move away. With few options open to her, 16-year-old Beryl was shunted, reluctantly, onto a more traditional track for a young woman in the early 1920s: marriage.
Beryl, however, wasn’t about to throw in the towel and devote herself to being a doting wife. She wanted to be her own person and pursue her passion for horses. It turned out that Beryl had a natural talent for training both feral and vulnerable horses. Despite the reluctance of her husband, at the age of 18 she became the first licensed female horse trainer in Africa, quickly earning renown when her horses won major events. Still, for many owners, her proven skill wasn’t enough to overcome her handicap of being a woman. Although she constantly had to fight for her rightful place in the racing world, it never stopped her from doing what she loved.
She applied a similar rule to men, never allowing the tattlers to sway her passions. But colonial Africa was, at its heart, a small town, and even among the community of bohemians and oddballs, Beryl always seemed to stand out. Even when she was all but run out of Africa on a wave of gossip, she took responsibility for her missteps, and did whatever it took to stay afloat.
Like most us, Beryl made some questionable decisions in her life, sometimes out of rebelliousness, but often out of basic survival. What drew me to her story is that, no matter how lost she became, she always managed to find her way back to her true self. She never allowed the accepted norms of the day to hold her back, and so she left an indelible mark on the world.
For those of us who aren’t built of pioneer stuff, those are good rules by which to live.
You can read a fictionalized version of Beryl Markham’s story in Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun or Beryl’s own account in her memoir West with the Night. I’m also going to add Karen Blixen’s related book, Out of Africa, to my reading list for more insight into that time and place. Let me know if you’ve read these books and what you thought.