Sunday, March 18, 2012

Beryl Markham: Feminist Hero? or Heroic Female?

March 18 - Today's post provided by Michaela MacColl

I’m so pleased to be part of the Kidlit Celebrates National Women’s History Month. All my books (so far) have featured strong women heroines and I feel totally at home this March!

A few weeks ago I heard that my second historical fiction novel, Promise the Night, had been recognized by the Amelia Bloomer Project from the American Library Association.  I’m embarrassed to say that I had to look up exactly what the Amelia Bloomer Project was.

 (Amelia Bloomer championed less restrictive clothing. She didn’t invent the “bloomer” but it’s associated with her).

The Amelia Bloomer list is for books for young people with significant feminist content. What I found most interesting was that the criteria states that “Feminist books for young readers must move beyond merely “spunky” and “feisty” young women… to show women overcoming the obstacles of intersecting forces of race, gender, and class, actively shaping their destinies… Feminist books show women solving problems, gaining personal power, and empowering others.” Wow. Solving problems. Gaining power. I’m so glad I wrote that kind of book!

Promise the Night is about Beryl Markham. Beryl (we’re on a first name basis now) grew up on a remote farm in colonial Africa. She refused to act like other British expatriate girls and spent all her time with the Nandi tribe who worked for her father. She was brave and reckless, and to my mind, addicted to danger.  What else could she grow up in the 1930’s to be, but a pilot? 

Beryl Markham
She wasn’t a society girl – flying for publicity’s sake (Yes, I mean you Amelia!). She considered herself a working pilot who needed to earn her living.  She learnt to fly over the uncharted deserts and jungles of Africa. For a time, she made good money spotting elephants for big game hunters. In 1936, a sponsor dared her to fly the Atlantic from the UK to New York, east to west, the hard way.  No one had made the flight solo yet. She accepted the challenge. This is what she said when she did:

I am going to fly the Atlantic to New York. Not as a society girl. Not as a woman even. But as a pilot with 2000 flying hours, mostly in uncharted Africa, to my credit.  The only thing that really counts… is whether one can fly. I have a license. I can take an engine apart and put it back. I can navigate. I am fit, and given ordinary luck I am sure I can fly to New York. This is to be no stunt flight. No woman's superiority over man affair. I don't want to be superior to men. If I can be a good pilot, I'll be the happiest creature alive.

The flight mesmerized the world ---particularly since she left it late in the year. The Atlantic was dark and stormy. Strong winds ate up her fuel and ice blocked her fuel lines. She made it – just barely. She crash landed in Newfoundland.

Beryl was battered by the flight but not defeated.  Here she is with Mayor de La Guardia accepting a hero’s welcome in New York City with an African “salaam.”

Beryl didn’t set out to be a feminist heroine. She didn’t have an agenda beyond landing safely. Beryl Markham was a brave pilot who broke an important record, who just happened to be a woman.  It never occurred to her that her gender had anything to do with her flying.  That’s how I like my feminism. 

Check out this link to see a video of the rescue party who found Beryl’s crashed plane in New Brunswick:

My next book is due out in April 2013 and it’s a mystery starring an unexpected protagonist…. Emily Dickinson. Can she solve the mystery of who killed Mr. Nobody? For more information, visit my website,

Editor's Note:

 Michaela MacColl has written two historical novels, Prisoners in the Palace (Chronicle, 2010) and Promise the Night (Chronicle, 2011). Her next novel, a mystery, featuring Emily Dickinson, will be released in 2013. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, two daughters and three rather large cats. 

The American Library Association's Amelia Bloomer Project was inspired by a book written by one of this year's contributing authors, Shana Corey (You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer!).  The project is led by a committee of the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association, which produces the annual Amelia Bloomer list. Promise the Night was selected for the 2012 Amelia Bloomer List.


  1. Thanks to Beryl for her pluck; to Michaela for telling her story so beautifully; and to Amelia for stretchy waist pants :)

  2. Bravo! I must find your book. I'm a huge Beryl Markham fan and have been for years. Recently re-read WEST WITH THE NIGHT and was "re"-blown away by the beauty of her work. Great post.

  3. So thrilled that Beryl's remarkable story is being told - and in such a thrilled way. Brava Beryl! Brava Michaela!

  4. LOVE Beryl Markham. I have a post here too that I wanted to share:

  5. Yes! We need more than just "spunky" girls and women in the literature we present to children.

  6. Hi, Just an update from Nova Scotia... Beryl actually crash landed in a small town in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (not Newfoundland OR New Brunswick!). She managed to crash land in a bog and got away with only a few cuts and bruises. Amazing woman!