Ernest Hemingway’s book, True at First Light was assembled from his writings by his second eldest son, Patrick Hemingway many years after his death. I have read many of Hemingway’s major works such as A Farewell to Arms, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Sun Also Rises and even taught parts of The Old Man and the Sea. I can still see Spencer Tracy in the movie as he sat there in that boat while contemplating life.
I went on to rent the movies after finishing his books to compare the likenesses and differences. I was impressed with how well Hollywood stayed true to the script, but we avid readers know that a movie can never fully embody a book, itself. And then, around 2011, author Paula McLain wrote The Paris Wife, and it reawakened my interest in Hemingway.
Her book featured Hadley, his first wife, and their early years in Paris. Hadley believed in him wholeheartedly and was highly instrumental in helping him get his career off the ground. He never stopped loving her and in his later years, after the world became his oyster, he often reflected on those simpler times in Paris with her and their son, Jack.
After reading The Paris Wife, I finally knew that it was time for me to make that trek to Oak Park. There are not that many great writers from Illinois, so I had to go see his museum for myself. The women who worked there told me that Paula McLain had recently been there for a book signing. There were artifacts from his life everywhere such as old typewriters, news reels from WWI where he fought, huge movie posters from movies featuring his books and we could even hear his voice from some news clips.
Also, I had the opportunity to walk about a block away and see his Boyhood Home and the docent was very knowledgeable about every detail of his life. We saw the library, the kitchen, the bedrooms upstairs and I could see the Marshall Field’s trucks leaving from delivering the mother’s finery, which he thought his doctor-father often could not afford.
Afterwards, I furthered my study of his life and read Mary Welsh Hemingway’s book How it Was. I remembered it being a bestseller in the early 80’s when I worked at a bookstore. It is over 600 pages long as she gives a detailed account of their lives together. She was his fourth and last wife and many call her the real Mrs. Hemingway. She stayed with him for over 25 years and was there on that fatal day in 1961 when his life ended. She too was a writer and foreign correspondent and she learned how to let him have his plateau but would also argue with him when she felt he was wrong.
So, True at First Light is not a tale nor a writer’s birds eye view of the happenings going on all around. It is more of a memoir told in a first-person narrative about he and Miss Mary’s (as he affectionately called her) time in Kenya in 1953. Here, we get to see how he felt about several issues, how he relaxed and what kept him up at nights.
We see him in the role as Papa-one who had late night talks with his beloved Mary and one who even had an African girlfriend, Debba (fiancée) who wanted to become his junior wife. (Of course, Mary was not having that!) But it was told in a light tone that did not stress nor concern the reader. He was by that time, a Nobel Prize winning writer that pretty much ruled his own world.
Mary is determined to kill a lion in the novel to prove whatever and though she gets the job done, he and another shooter had to help put the lion totally down so it would not retaliate. Her shots did not fully kill the old lion. But more importantly, we see him hunting on a regular basis to make certain that all depending on him ate and had regular meat. We see him as a doctor administering aid to those who were sick. We see him reading and cherishing news and updates in the mail, and we see him getting up and sitting by the fire to think things through when everyone else was sleep. Many relied on his judgment and depended on his ability to lead and by that time, he was known as Papa to those around him.
True at First Light is a light book but cannot be read in a rush because it is filled with dribbles of wisdom and life lessons for those who are truly attuned. I laughed out loud when he received a letter from a woman in Iowa telling him that he was immature, that he had four wives and asking him when he was going to write something substantial. He thought,” I have written something substantial.” He later referred to her as the Iowa bitch, two times. I hollered!
I am so glad that I picked up this gem from a secondhand store. It has been sitting on my shelf, but I was working before and not really ready for this treat and trip to Kenya. But then the time came. Yes, it took me a little longer to get through it but all who know Hemingway understand that he is no one to be read in a hurry. Each word is a bite to be tasted, chewed and savored!
October 15, 2022