Book notes | Circling the Sun

This historical novel depicts the life of Beryl Markham from her birth in 1902 until her mid-thirties. Beryl was born in England but moved at age 4 when her father took the family to Kenya to set up a horse farm. Kenya at the time was the colonial British East Africa. Beryl’s mother soon abandoned her and her father, returning to England with Beryl’s brother.

Beryl’s childhood was greatly influenced by her father and the native Kipsigis tribe. She grew up with little restraint or attention to the cultural norms for women at that time. This unconventional upbringing came into conflict with expectations once she came of age for marriage.

In describing Markham’s life in 1920s colonial Kenya, author Paula McLain introduces us to a variety of characters that influenced Markham’s life. The beauty of the country also comes through clearly in the novel, as does the strangeness of British citizens trying to superficially maintain their British ways of being in Africa while also living and loving by their own rules.

A non-conformist
Markham was a non-conformist, becoming the first licensed woman horse trainer in Kenya at the age of 17. She married more than once and had a passionate affair with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton, who was romantically involved with the Danish author Baroness Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen). Markham became a bush pilot and, in 1936, was the first pilot to successfully cross the Atlantic, east to west, from England to North America. She wrote a memoir about her life, West With the Night, upon which McLain based much of the story in her historical novel.

The responses of UMRA Book Club I members to the book were mixed. Many enjoyed the descriptions of Kenya and the character’s early life as well as the depiction of colonialism in the story. Some readers found it difficult to like Markham as an adult because of the choices she made. There was general agreement that she was an interesting character who broke boundaries for women as both a horse trainer and aviator.

Readers of Markham’s memoir felt that McLain’s historical novel did not emphasize accomplishments that were more detailed in the memoir. Instead, the second part of the book seemed “gossipy” to them, focusing too much on the amoral lifestyle of the ex-patriots living in Kenya.

—Kathy Cramer, UMRA Book Club I member

Publication date: 
July 17, 2022
At A Glance
Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Luncheon and Forum 
Campus Club, Fourth Floor
West Wing Dining Room
Coffman Memorial Union 

10:45–11 a.m.

Check in

11:15 a.m.

Buffet lunch

Featured speaker
Jan Graupman, executive director
International Institute of Minnesota

Pan-seared wild Pacific salmon with
fresh seasonal vegetables
and soft polenta. GF 

Plated vegan option
Grilled vegetables with quinoa, champagne vinaigrette,
and chimichurri. GF, DF 

RSVP by September 17
Prepayment of $30 per person.
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Cancellations and refunds will be honored
until September 17.
We are not able to accommodate
registrationson the day of the event. 

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in University parking facilities, use the QR code
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