Saturday, March 17, 2018

Circling the Sun Book

Book:     Circling the Sun
Author:  Paula McLain
Edition:  Softcover Ballantine Books

Although it’s a novel, I fact-checked major events and found them in line with historical record. McLain’s imagining of how Markham’s relationships with men, with Karen Blixen, with horses and with Africa seem incredibly true. 

Circling The Sun is a beautiful novel to read on a snowy day, envisioning the plains and hills and people of Kenya early in the 20th century and the self-reliance of a very independent woman living beyond her time. What I find even more fascinating is the juxtaposition of this novel with Beryl Markham’s own stories in West with the Night. Together these two books can make for an interesting discussion on truth and memory, what we chose to share about our lives and what we chose to hold close.

Internet Resources

Circling the Sun does not draw attention to the colonial rule and virtual slavery going on during this time period, however reading background on Kenya during the colonial period helps set the place. These three summaries offer very brief descriptions of the time period:
A quick internet search reveals much biographical background on Beryl Markham. This biographical summary is a quick read and highlights significant events.

Major Characters

Beryl Cutterbuck Purves Markham: White, English woman raised in Kenya
Charles Cutterbuck: Beryl’s father
Clara Cutterbuck: Beryl’s mother
Lord and Lady Delamere: Nearest white neighbors who own ranch where Beryl first goes to work as a young woman
Kibii who becomes Arap Ruta: Beryl's childhood Kipsigis friend who returns to work for her as an adult
Emma Orchardson: White, English woman and Charles’ second wife
Jock Purves: Beryl’s first hubsand
Berkeley Cole: White, English settler and sheep farmer
Denys Finch Hatton: White, English man, big game hunter and guide, pilot, individualist, loved by both Karen Blixen and Beryl.
Boy Long: Delamere’s ranch manager and man with whom Beryl has first affair
Karen Blixen: Danish woman who is a coffee farmer in Kenya on the farm Mbogani 
Bror Blixen: Blixen’s Danish husband whom she divorces  
Mansfield Markham: Beryl’s second husband, whom she divorces
Gervase: Beryl’s son with Mansfield 
Tom Campbell Black: Pilot and Beryl’s flight instructor

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for Circling the Sun that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests. 

Truth

If you’ve read West with the Night, compare what Beryl Markham includes in her stories with what is include in McLain’s novel.  Markham writes nothing of her relationships although she was married three times. She doesn’t even mention her son who was raised by his father’s mother. She only offers glimpses into the struggles that she must have faced as a young woman working in a man’s world both as a horse trainer and as a pilot. Rather, West with the Night paints a romantic view of Kenya and her life there. 
Which do you think is more true? Why do you think Markham chose to leave out of her book any emotions entwined with her relationships?  Did she have no feeling for relationships? Did she want to erase her relationships from her memory or from her personal history?
What is true? How do your memories and stories alter the truth over time? If a story is told with facts altered or critical facts left out is it still true? What makes truth?

Native Kenyans and White European Settlers

McLain shares glimpses into the excess and power of the white settlers in Kenya in the early 20th century. Do you think Markham was comfortably a part of the gaiety of the white settler community even as she could only barely make ends meet? Did she have blinders on to the plunder and excesses of Europeans in Kenya or was she unsettled by the imbalance? Did any of the white settlers seem unsettled by the devastation they created?

Family

Markham has complex relationships.  She was abandoned by her mother as a child, her father went to another continent when she was barely a young woman and she was separated from her son when he was just a small child.  In the book she has 2 husbands (in fact she was married a third time after her transatlantic flight) and a number of affairs that make the gossip circles.
When Markham sees her mother cheering her on at a horse race she reflects,
“Maybe Berkeley had been right about family— maybe we never survive them, or anyone we love. Not in the truest way.” page 253
What do you think? How plausible are the emotions that McLain paints in the novel? 
Have you survived your family? 

Friends

Markham forms strong friendships, perhaps the strongest with Ruta, who follows her from her work as a horse trainer to a pilot. When he returns to her as an adult, Markham thinks,
“Ruta might never fully grasp the choices I’d made, but we didn’t have to agree on everything to help each other.” 
They conclude their conversation with 
“then we will have to build a bigger fire, Beru.”“We will,” I said. We already have. page 242
How did Ruta and Marham’s friendship endure over many years and such a great difference in backgrounds? What do you think was at the core of their friendship?

What holds your strongest friendships in place over the years?

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