Promise the Night tells the fascinating story of Beryl Markham's childhood in East Africa. Beryl Markha was the first woman to fly solo from east to west, across the Atlantic Ocean in 1936.
Markham was born Beryl Clutterbuck in 1902. In 1904 her mother and father along with Beryl moved to Kenya to farm. Within two years her mother had abandoned the family and returned to England, leaving 2 year old Beryl and her father in British East Africa. Beryl's father was a racehorse trainer and he allowed his young daughter to mingle freely with the African natives, learning their culture. MacColl's novel picks up the story when Beryl is ten years old, uneducated and mostly left to wander at will. The story is set on Green Hills Farm, Njoro, British East Africa which is now known as Kenya.
Beryl lives in a mud hut known as a rondavel only a short distance away from her father's rondavel. One night, her beloved dog, Buller, is attacked by a leopard who caries him off into the forest. When her father refuses to rescue the dog, the next morning Beryl goes into the forest to track and find him. In the bush she meets a native boy, Kibii who is from the Nandi tribe. Kibii was sent by his father, Arap Maina who works for Beryl's father, Captain Clutterbuck to find Beryl. Kibii locates Buller and together the two carry the severely injured dog back to her father's compound. Captain Clutterbuck tells Beryl she will be returning to England but when Beryl protests, Arap Maina offers to teach her the ways of the Nandi tribe as a means of keeping her out of trouble.
Beryl is taken to Kibii's village and meets his mothers and is told that she will help the Nandi women weave a thatched roof. However Beryl is not interested in women's work but instead wants to learn how to hunt. Arap Maina allows Beryl to train with the young boys learning "to track animals, wrestle and even throw a spear at a target." But she is not allowed to learn how to hunt. Later on Arap Maina's resolve weakens as Beryl insists that she wants to become a
murani or warrior, something women are not allowed to do. Initially Arap
Maina allows Beryl to watch the Nandi hunt a leopard.
Mrs. Emma Orchardson arrives at the Clutterbuck Farm along with her son Arthur, to keep house for Beryl's father. Beryl's father has built a new house, which Beryl notes might have convinced her mother to remain on the farm if it had been built years ago. Beryl however, continues to live in her hut. She doesn't take very well to Arthur whom Beryl considers to be somewhat of a sissy. Beryl's dislike of Arthur almost results in her and Arthur being seriously injured by Simi the baboon who is a pet on the farm. Simi viciously attacks Arthur leading Beryl to quickly intervene. She finds herself in a deadly battle with the baboon, whom she ends up killing.
That night Kibii takes Beryl to the Kikuyu village to watch the men dancing. However, when Beryl goes missing her father sends one of his Boer foremen to search for her and she is hauled home. Captain Clutterbuck is concerned about Beryl's knack for getting herself in dangerous situations, while Emma worries about her wild upbringing. Emma insists Captain Clutt hire a governess for his daughter, which he reluctantly agrees to do.
The next day Captain Clutterbuck takes the train to Nairobi. Beryl rides with him to the train station at Nakuru. On the trip Beryl's father attempts to persuade her that a governess will be good for her and that she must try to get along with Emma who is there to stay. When Beryl returns to Green Hills, she goes to visit the Nandi village. Arap Maina tells the young boys that the murani will hunt the lion who is endangering their cattle. When Beryl insists she be allowed to go on the hunt, Arap Maina agrees only if she promises to follow his orders. Both Kibii and another boy, Mehru are angry that Beryl is allowed to participate.
Beryl is taken on the hunt and given a bodyguard named Tepli who is very reluctant to have her in his care. When the lion charges Arap Maina, Beryl courageously diverts the lion so he can be killed. Arap Maina tells Beryl she did well because like a warrior, she did not run. When Beryl returns home she finds her father has been given the pelt of the lion killed in the hunt. Her father is furious that she has been involved in such a dangerous event. Beryl finds her father has brought back a governess,Miss Le May. Not surprisingly, Beryl and Miss Le May do not get along. Their relationship turns into one of full out war with Miss Le May whipping Beryl in an attempt to get her to learn math. Beryl eventually flees to her hut and is locked in by the governess. She is able to escape to the Nandi where she stays for two weeks. When her father returns, Beryl is able to show him what's been happening and Miss Le May is fired.
Things change drastically when Beryl is attacked by Mehru and is forced to fight him. When Captain Clutterbuck comes across the two fighting, he beats Mehru badly, believing he tried to violate Beryl. This creates much tension between the Nandi and Captain Clutterbuck who doesn't understand the Nandi culture. Beryl's bad luck continues when she is attacked by a nearby farmer's pet lion. Seriously wounded Beryl is rescued but her father warns her he's had enough. Beryl's father decides to send her away to be educated in Nairobi, telling her he has no choice. Thrust into the British world of boarding schools and regulations, Beryl must adjust to her new life. Will things every be the same for Beryl when she returns to her beloved Green Hills?
Promise the Night is probably Michaela MacColl's best novel to date. It is a richly crafted novel that explores the themes of friendship and identity in culture within a coming of age story.
MacColl brilliantly captures Beryl's headstrong personality even though at times Beryl is a genuinely difficult, unlikeable character. As a ten-year-old she refuses to follow any of the social norms of civilized society. She insists on living in a mud hut and on going barefoot. Her hair is uncombed, her face dirty and she does not wear the dresses and hats common to young girls of this time period. She doesn't go to school and places no value in education. Instead Beryl is allowed to roam freely on the farm and to mingle with the East African natives. Exposed to their culture early on she is determined to become a murani and is desperate to participate in the hunts.
However this immersion in native culture inevitably sets Beryl up for much internal conflict. She fears growing up because it will mean the loss of her friendship with Kibii. Beryl's relationship with Kibii will change when he is initiated into manhood in the Nandi and as Beryl grows into a young woman. Emma asks Beryl to confront the reality of her life by recognizing the changes beginning in her own body. Beryl tells Emma that she doesn't want to grow up because it means she will have to give up the very things that she has in common with Kibii, hunting, wrestling and running. Emma forces Beryl to confront the reality of her situation: "You could kill every lion in the highlands, but you will still be a white girl. You're the daughter of a respected landowner, his heir." Emma also tells her that because of her father's unusual situation of being abandoned by his wife and because she is still married, her father is ostracized by the other settlers.
However Beryl comes to understand that even though she's gone away to school and returned and even though Kibii is now murani and known as Arap Ruta their friendship still endures. At first when she returns to the farm, Beryl believes that Kibii doesn't want to have anything to do with her. But Arap Ruta comes to see her after Beryl has helped her horse, Coquette birth a colt. When they meet Beryl tells him that much to her surprise the stars looked the same in Nairobi as on the farm. And that it was she who was different. Even though they are different now, Kibii is now a warrior and Beryl is growing into a young women, they are still the same people and still friends.
MacColl tells Beryl Markham, nee Clutterbuck's story by weaving together two narratives: the main story is that of a ten year old girl struggling to find her identity as the daughter of a white farmer in East Africa interspersed with the narrative of a daring young woman determined to fly across the Atlantic from England to New York in 1936.
Promise the Night also conveys to young readers what life was like in East Africa in the early 20th century. There is some portrayal of culture which MacColl based on the Masai tribe because information was more readily available for the Masai than the Nandi. Readers are given a glimpse of the rigors endured to build a railway in East Africa when Beryl takes the train home from Nairobi. And of course, the social conventions common to England were still strictly adhered to in British Africa.
MacColl was motivated to write this historical novel after hearing her mother, an amateur pilot talk about Beryl Markham's memoir, West with the Night. With such a personal connection to flying, it's no surprise the MacColl was able to capture the essence of Beryl Markham's character.
Although Beryl Markham was known for her solo transatlantic flight, this feat is really secondary to young Beryl's childhood in Promise the Night. Young Beryl's narrative is filled with references to her future flying career. When she is with Kibii she tells him that she would love to fly over the valley like and eagle. Later on when Captain Clutterbuck is attempting to convince Beryl that a governess might be good for her, he tells her the story of Icarus and Daedalus who escaped the island of Crete by flying. Although it's a foreshadowing of Beryl's own dangerous flight years later, the Captain is warning her against being reckless.
Overall, Promise The Night is a wonderful novel, engaging and well written. Fans of historical fiction and those wanting to learn more about famous and unconventional women will be delighted with Michaela MacColl's retelling. There is an excellent Author's Note at the back and a list for further reading as well.
Promise Of The Night by Michaela MacColl
San Francisco: Chronicle Books 2011