Beryl Markham and Mattress Mary

You never know what'll happen at a book club…

Beryl Markham and Mattress Mary

It’s hardly surprising that most writers are also big readers. Kind of goes with the territory. I’m no exception. I read pretty much every spare minute. So I was excited when I was invited to sit in at my mother-in-law’s book club while on vacation. Exchange ideas about something I’ve read? Yes, please.

We were set to discuss Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun, a fictionalized account of Beryl Markham’s early years in Kenya. Markham, an author in her own right, wrote West with the Night, which Hemmingway called “a bloody wonderful book.” She broke ground in Kenya by becoming the first licensed female racehorse trainer. She had a winning record for her horses that is impressive even by today’s standards. She also became an aviator and was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.

Now, I’ve probably mentioned that I’m a bit historically challenged, but I know Kenyan colonial history better than I know U.S. colonial history because of my specialization in African Studies. So, I actually had something I could contribute to this discussion.

Having personal experience in Kenya, I recognized a number of the places mentioned in the novel and had been to many of these sites. That was also pretty cool. I could close my eyes and imagine how the hotel or bar or farm in question would have looked at that time, overlaying how it looks now. McLain did a lovely job layering in details that brought the places alive.

Confession time. I’ve never been to a book club meeting as a reader. I’ve been an invited speaker, but that’s a different thing. This time, I’d be able to participate as a fellow reader. Yasss!

Off we went, snacks in hand, to the hostess’ house. This particular book club’s members were mostly retired teachers from a small Midwest beach town, many whom had traveled far and wide. Several were also voracious readers. They turned out to be a most welcoming group of ladies with a wide range of interests.

I didn’t exactly know what to expect. I tend to look at books analytically if I know I’ll be discussing the book with others. In this case, I pulled out the themes, dissected the structure, dialogue, and style.

Yep, I’m the life of any party.

I didn’t write down talking points or anything — it was supposed to be fun, right? — but I was prepared to discuss any of the topics above. Naturally, we didn’t discuss any of these points.

Instead, we talked about the social strictures of the day and whether we felt certain actions by the protagonist were justified within those constraints. McLain did a wonderful job showing how Beryl chafed within the strictures of her time. Also, the contrast between the privilege bestowed upon white women in colonial Kenya and the dependence these women had on fathers and husbands was poignant and, at times, painful.

I love discussing social dynamics, whether real or in fiction. I adore pondering characters’ motivations and desires, so my expectations were vastly exceeded by this group.

It was fun. A lot of fun.

After discussing Circling the Sun for an hour or so, conversations about everything and anything ensued. I learned about Mattress Mary, a local prostitute in the 1970s, and about a girl who was murdered by her roommate’s jealous boyfriend. I learned about a Chinese woman who was also murdered, but the case was never solved. Now, remember, this is a small Midwest town, so it’s not like bodies are just washing up on the shore. It’s not Cabot Cove or anything.

While the group discussed these unusual circumstances, I suddenly heard the hop, hop, hop of plot bunnies. Really, is there anything better for a crime writer than prostitutes and murder? That’s rhetorical, by the way. 

I came home from the meeting, rushed to my room, and began furiously typing away to make sure I’d get the plot bunnies written down. They’re in a folder now, waiting. Whether I make something of them remains to be seen. But they’re there. So I would not only recommend Circling the Sun for readers, but I would definitely recommend book groups’ post-book-talk for writers. After all, you never know when a plot bunny will hop your way.

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