West with the Night by Beryl Markham, published in 1942; The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley, published in 1959; Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, published in 1938. The first two were Englishwomen, Dinesen was a Danish woman, they all lived on farms in the Kenya highlands, and each was seized, in different degrees, by the mystique of Africa. To quote Miss Markham:
Africa is of an ancient age and the blood of many of her peoples is as venerable and chaste as truth. What upstart race, sprung from some recent callow century to arm itself with steel and boastfulness, can match in purity the blood of a single Masai Murani whose heritage may have stemmed not from Eden?
Racial purity, true aristocracy, evolve not from edict, nor from rote, but from the preservation of kinship with the elemental forces and purposes of life whose understanding is not farther beyond the mind of a Native shepherd than beyond the cultured fumblings of a mortar-board intelligence. - West with the Night
Certain times, certain tropes, are common to the three books, so at first we note the similarities: at the age of five, in 1907, Mrs. Huxley is brought to the site of what will be the family's coffee plantation; in 1902, at the age of four, Miss Markham goes with her father to live on a large farm; Isak Dinesen is installed, at the age of twenty-nine with her husband on a coffee plantation in 1914. Each has a special friend or friends among the natives; animals, wild and domesticated, play a large part in their lives, and so on.
The easiest book to grasp, to understand fully, is West with the Night. It opens with an incident in her flying career in 1935 when she is called upon for a night flight to deliver an oxygen tank to a mining camp, and on her way back next day she spots the downed plane of an aviator who has been missing for days, and she lands to rescue him. Just as she is about to take off, an Indian, a Sikh who worked on her father's farm when she was a child, appears with a small caravan. After a brief conversation they part, shaking hands, and she notices that his arm is crippled. He explains it as a mishap with a lion and goes on:
. . . it makes us like brothers, you and me. Each has been torn by a lion. You remember that time at Kabete when you were a little child?
Markham and Woody fly on to Nairobi where they have a final conversation about why they fly. Woody says if he gave up flying,
"I couldn't bear it. It would all be so dull."
"It can be dull anyway."
"Even with lions tearing you to bits at Kabete?"
"Oh, that was back in my childhood. Some day I'll write a book and you can read about it."
So the next chapter smoothly slips back twenty-five years to the time when she was living on her father's large farm, to the day when she was attacked by a supposedly tame lion, and the Sikh, raising the alarm, helped to save her. This is a dramatic, and clever, way to begin her story, because we already know that the intrepid little girl who once experienced a lion's roar and teeth and claws will grow up to be a dauntless pilot, so her story becomes an unrolling scroll that will confirm and validate the opening account of the night flight.
Her father's farm is a huge enterprise employing over one thousand natives, growing and milling tons of corn and wheat for the government to feed workers on the Uganda Railway. The farm is described in four or five pages, and although she does not go into detail, we learn more about the working of the farm in this book than we learn about the farms in the other books. Such a description is important for the reader to know where he is, his place in the landscape. Then she focuses sharply on an adventure hunting warthogs with her dog and two natives, trotting for miles, carrying spears. This movement from general descriptions to closely observed accounts of specific incidents is characteristic of the book, quickening our interest.
Her father raised and trained thoroughbred horses, so Beryl naturally became a horsewoman. Then a drought ruins her father and he sells the farm and goes to Peru, leaving the choice of her fate up to her, then seventeen. She chooses to stay in Kenya and become a horse trainer. She is slowly but surely building up her business when, in an exciting chapter, one of the horses she has trained wins the most important race of the season, a triumphant end to her horsey career, because the next chapter describes her watching an airplane land in Nairobi, piloted by a man she has met before, who tells her she's going to be a flier. So Tom Black teaches her, she earns her license, and becomes a freelance, "carrying, mail, passengers, supplies to safaris, or whatever had to be carried." She concentrates on safaris, scouting for elephants by air. Finally she recounts a flight to England followed by her flight across the Atlantic (crash landing in Cape Breton), the first solo by a woman from east to west, in 1936.
This is the story of a determined, strong-willed character committed to a life of adventure, as she says of her flying:
I have never felt [the plane's] wheels glide from the earth into the air without knowing the uncertainty and exhilaration of firstborn adventure.
Despite some similarities, Elspeth Huxley's The Flame Trees of Thika is quite a different account of two years, 1913-1915, in the life of the author, then six to eight, as she and her parents try to farm in the Kenya highlands, and it begins, conventionally, at the beginning and proceeds to her (temporary) departure for England at the end.
We set off in an open cart drawn by four whip-scarred little oxen and piled high with equipment and provisions. . . . I sat beside my mother, only a little less fortified in a pith helmet and a starched cotton dress . . . We were going to Thika, a name on a map where two rivers joined. Thika in those days was a favorite camp for big-game hunters and beyond it there was only bush and plain.
There's a subtly funny scene while their household goods are being loaded on the cart in Nairobi. Tilly, the mother, has been out on the plain and returns "peppered with tiny red ticks" which she picks off her clothing, squashing them between her fingers. The elegant wife of the man who sold Robin the land watches with
. . . fascinated horror . . . "Roger, I don't feel very well. You must take me home." . . . Tilly went on squishing ticks.
Tilly refers to the place where they're going as a "farm," and the speaker (Huxley) says it isn't a farm, only 500 acres of blank space," and the speakers slips back to an earlier conversation:
"Best coffee land in the country," Stilbeck had remarked.
"Has anyone planted any yet?"
"My dear fellow, there's no need to plant coffee to make sure of that. Experts have analyzed the soil . . ."
And so on, obviously a con man's pitch. So Robin bought the land at a higher price than he could afford and also, on the con man's advice, buys a share in a syndicate in Uganda, guaranteed to bring in a lot of money fast
On paper, the logic was inescapable. The Uganda syndicate made nothing at all for fifteen years; Robin received the annual accounts, which nearly always started with the item: "To manager's funeral expenses, six rupees." After that, it went into liquidation.
So Robin's gullibility and Tilly's imperturbability are established at once, conveyed with gentle, comic irony. They arrive at the "farm":
Robin pulled up and said, "Here we are." We did not seem to be anywhere. Everything was just the same, biscuit-brown, quivering with heat and grasshoppers.
Then we are treated to Robin's fantasizing:
"This is where I thought we'd put the house. . . ." Robin talked on. The whole place was thriving and making several thousand pounds a year before Tilly had managed to dismount and sit down on an old eroded ant-heap to wipe her face. . . .
Tilly may not be so gullible, for she, too, is a romantic:
. . . by the time I was sent off to bed they had already harvested their first crop, bought a motor-car, built a stone house and booked their passages for a holiday trip home, when they would stand their relations expensive meals and take a grouse-moor in Scotland for the rest of the summer.
Nevertheless, they get on with work:
[Tilly] was abroad in the sunshine laying out a garden, supervising the planting of coffee seedlings, marking out a citrus plantation, paying labor in a corner of the store that served as an office, rendering first-aid . . .
Slowly the neighbors emerge - some live miles away or are there only intermittently, when not out on a safari, for instance. They interact, their relationships have consequences, some comic, some tragic, and as we near the end of the book, Huxley begins to see and feel this. Among the three books, this one is the most social. While the child may seem concerned only with herself and her own trivial concerns, she is remarkably sensitive to the adults around her, and is very aware in a seemingly innocent way, of their subtler relations. I say "seemingly" because there are several places where she overhears scraps of significant conversations that she then dismisses as uninteresting to her childish ears.
That is one of Mrs. Huxley's devices by which she accomplishes her amazing achievement: the illusion of a world seen through the eyes of a child actually guided by a mature, sophisticated sensibility, done with a most delicate, sensitive touch. She recorded these events more than forty years after their occurrence, but by this fictive creation of a child's world, they are as fresh as morning dew. The African background - a case of witchcraft, clever cattle thievery, dangerous hunting, multiracial contretemps and misunderstandings - is always interesting, but it is the background to the human comedy in which the characters play out their roles, accompanied by tears and laughter - that is the foreground. A wonderful book, an incredible achievement.
This is the opening of Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa:
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the daytime you felt that you had got high up, near the sun, but the early morning and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.
You know at once that there is an artistic sensibility at work here; that this book will be an esthetic experience in a way the other two are not. You know it by the second sentence. The sudden mention of the equator is jolting; you do not expect it, it introduces a concept much larger than the farm, and when you finish the sentence you are at six thousand feet, and the whole experience - for that is what it is - has been transformed from the simple, offhand statement of the first sentence into something that will be richly significant. I do not mean they are devoid of artistry - far from it. But everything in this book is written with an eye to its esthetic character because the author is, above all, a writer. The other two have stories to tell; so does Isak Dinesen, but its esthetic quality is as important as the story. To get the flavor of this writing, I should have to quote too much, but here is a small incident:
One night, after midnight, [Kamante] suddenly walked into my bedroom with a [lantern] in his hand, silent, as if on duty. It must have been only a short time after he first came into my house, for he was very small; he stood by my bedside like a dark bat that had strayed into the room . . . He spoke to me very solemnly, "Msabu," he said, "I think you had better get up." . . . I told Kamante to go away again. . . . "Msabu," he said again, "I think that you had better get up. I think that God is coming." When I heard this I did get up, and asked him why he thought so . . . there was a big grass-fire going on, out in the hills, and the grass was burning all the way from the hill-top to the plain; when seen from my house it was a nearly vertical line. It did indeed look as if some gigantic figure was moving and coming towards us. . . . I began to explain the thing to him. I meant to quiet him, for I thought that he had been terribly frightened. But the explanation did not seem to make much impression on him one way or the other; he clearly took his mission to have been fulfilled when he had called me. "Well yes," he said, "it may be so. But I thought that you had better get up in case it was God coming."
The prose is simple, declarative, and it brings the scene clearly before our eyes, the writing of a master, the art that conceals artistry. The writer and the boy stand before the windows, looking out at the grass-fire. What could be simpler? But by the end of the passage we know something about the two of them and something about their relationship.
The book describes her life on the farm with animals, visitors, shooting lions, her activity hauling supplies with ox-carts during World War I, the death of a Kikuyu chief, and finally, the sad story of the sale of the farm and her departure from Kenya. Contemplating the book, it seems to be like a beautiful object, a highly polished piece of furniture, or a finely sculpted monument that I can gaze at again and again with pleasure.
Many years ago, in my first teaching job, I was teaching Hamlet, and I asked the class what the character Hamlet was made of? Much puzzlement, many wild answers, until I answered the question: "Words, only words."
The artistic arrangement of words creates a memorable character (400 years after his creation we are still arguing about Hamlet's character), just as Isak Dinesen created a picture of her life in Africa which we shall remember long after we have forgotten the other books, worthy as they are. *