One thing we could all use in this world is more empathy. I was thinking about this problem while reading Paula McLain’s latest historical fiction memoir, CIRCLING THE SUN, which puts us deeply in the shoes of Beryl Clutterbuck—later Markham—who lived a bold and courageous life.
Born in England, Beryl grew up in Kenya and learned how to train horses with her father after her mother abandoned them. As the book jacket states, she would become “a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen” (AKA Isak Dinesen, who wrote the memoir OUT OF AFRICA). This gives you a headline, but not nearly enough about the fascinating details such as what the landscape of Kenya looked like in those days or what it’s like to have your leg chewed on by a lion. McLain fills in those details, and more.
McLain wowed me with THE PARIS WIFE, her fictional memoir of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and here again her writing impresses, page after page. I particularly love how, in showing how Beryl tries to find her way, she interconnects descriptions and feelings: each sentence carries so much water. Here is just one example:
“This was certain: I belonged on the farm and in the bush. I was part of the thorn trees and the high jutting escarpment, the bruised-looking hills thick with vegetation; the deep folds between the hills, and the high cornlike grasses. I had come alive here, as if I’d been given a second birth, and a truer one. This was my home, and though one day it would all trickle through my fingers like so much red dust, for as long as childhood lasted it was a heaven fitted exactly to me. A place I knew by heart. The one place in the world I’d been made for.”
If we could bottle McLain’s empathizing skills, just imagine how much better we might understand one another.