Circling the Sun
With her imaginative piece of historic fiction Circling the Sun, author Paula McLain dives into the world of real-life heroine Beryl Markham, whose notoriety stretched far beyond her record as the first woman to guide an aircraft across the Atlantic, in 1936. While Beryl’s historic take-off and landing act as triumphant bookends, Circling the Sun is far more interested in the life and loves that came before her epoch-defining flight.
384 pages, $32 (hardcover)
Release date Jul 28, 2015
Raised in Kenya (or “Kenya before it was Kenya,” as recited in a suspenseful truth-or-dare-style parlour game with powerful consequences), Beryl’s earliest memories capture the coming of age of a strong-willed tomboy marked by fearless encounters with the unforgiving landscape and wildlife of Africa. Abandoned by her mother and left with her father, a racehorse trainer, Beryl lives for adventure. Spending her days exploring and hunting, the young Beryl dreams of a future as a warrior, gender roles be damned.
The 20th century, however, has different ideas, and Beryl enters an admirable life of revolutionary protest against the constraints placed on the women of her time. Fighting for her right to love freely, train prize-winning horses (at the time, strictly a man’s pursuit), and later take flight over an unconquered, seemingly insurmountable ocean, Beryl provides McLain with a protagonist overflowing with character. Told through even and evocative prose dappled with cinematic descriptions of Beryl’s beloved Africa, Circling the Sun profiles an unforgettable trendsetter whose numerous accomplishments are well worth another look.
Discussion Points for Your Book Club
Delve deeper into the life of Beryl Markham with these five book club discussion points for Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun:
1. Before Kenya was Kenya, Beryl Markham (born Clutterbuck) lived in what was known as the British-controlled East African Protectorate. Adjacent to German East Africa, both territories vanished in the wake of the First World War, marking the start of African independence from Europe. Explore the impact these seismic shifts in national identity would have on the characters of Circling the Sun.
2. Beryl Markham’s memoirs, West with the Night, were published in 1942, furthering her notoriety as a sexually liberated woman conquering more than one field considered the territory of men. How have attitudes changed since the days of Markham’s bold choices?
3. While Circling the Sun is a piece of historical fiction, Beryl Markham was a living, breathing historical figure. What responsibilities do authors of these types of imagined retellings of a person’s life have to the reader? More importantly, what responsibilities do authors of historical fiction have to their subjects?
4. Throughout the book, Beryl’s romantic choices – the limitations of marriage notwithstanding – conclude at best in disappointment, at worst in tragedy. Compared with other popular strong-willed heroines, how do her opinions on love and fulfillment differ? Are we just as free as Beryl to make similar choices, or are relationships still driven in part by societal pressures?
5. One of the most important friendships in Circling the Sun exists between Beryl and Kibii, a young Kipsigis village boy living near her father’s farm. How do their worlds interact? Can they co-exist?