In Full Flight

IN FULL FLIGHT: A Story of Africa and Atonement. By John Heminway. Knopf. 316 pages. $27.95.

Colonial Kenya was notorious for “white mischief.” As the old pick-up line “Are you married or do you live in Kenya?” indicates, many of the well-bred, well-heeled white settlers led lives beyond the bounds of conventional morality.

Few, however, were quite so morally compromised, and none has a story quite so morally complicated, as Anne Spoerry, the subject of John Heminway’s wonderfully novelistic biography “In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement.”

Arriving in Kenya five years after the end of the World War II, the Franco-Swiss doctor, though still not formally credentialed, established herself as a brusque no-nonsense physician tending to Kenya’s remotest rural poor. She was a brilliant diagnostician, and despite her brusqueness often generously used her own funds to support her patients.

Learning to fly in 1963, the year of Kenya’s independence, Spoerry joined AMREF, Kenya’s flying doctor service, and rapidly became known as “Mama Daktari.” For more than 30 years with AMREF, she clocked over 8,000 hours of flight time, vaccinated 30,000 people a year, and cared for an estimated 1.2 million patients. After her funeral, the celebrated Kenyan archaeologist and politician Dr. Richard Leakey told Heminway, “She probably saved more lives than anyone else in the history of Africa.”

That is only part of this remarkable story, however. Spoerry’s characteristic gruffness erupted into outright anger whenever anyone asked her about her war experience. It was known that she had been active in the French Resistance and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Located northeast of Berlin, Ravensbruck was the only camp exclusively for women, and held a mixture of Resistance fighters, Jews, gypsies and anyone perceived to be an enemy of the Nazi Reich. Conditions were horrendous. Designed to hold 6,000, the camp was found at its liberation in 1945 to house some 40,000 women; 90,000 are estimated to have died there.

Spoerry’s virulent refusal to talk about her camp experience was put down by her friends and acquaintances to a natural unwillingness to bring such horrors to mind. The indecorous speed at which she ate her food, likewise suggested that Ravensbruck had profoundly scarred her.

As indeed it had, but not quite in the way people imagined. As Heminway explains, Spoerry had survived Ravensbruck by allying herself with one of the camp’s most notorious kapos, a sadomasochistic, psychopathic, sexually voracious fellow Swiss called Carmen Mory.

Mory, who escaped the hangman’s noose after the war only by committing suicide, was “block elder” of Block 10 at Ravensbruck, a prisoner with authority over the others. In that capacity, and with Spoerry’s assistance, she selected women for execution, and on a number of occasions instructed Spoerry to give inmates lethal injections of Evaprin or air.

While Mory was tried and found guilty of war crimes by a court in Hamburg, Spoerry’s case was more complicated. In 1946, a Free French tribunal found her guilty of causing the death of at least one patient as well as of “anti-French and anti-patriotic behavior, and exiled her from France. For nearly two years (1947 and 1948) she was on trial in Switzerland for war crimes, with evidence in that trial being shared with a formal French court.

Haunted and shamed by her wartime activity, Spoerry took advantage of family wealth and connections to escape Europe, first to Aden, and then to Kenya. She had promised the Free French “Court d’Honneur” that she would live the rest of her life working “with lepers,” and in her subsequent career as Mama Daktari lived out that Albert Schweitzer-esque promise.

The moral question at the heart of this highly readable book is whether that subsequent career could atone for the torture and death she had visited on her fellow camp inmates in Ravensbruck. Judging from the relentless way in which she pushed herself to keep working into her late 70s when she could barely see, and when her knees were causing her constant pain, it seems that Spoerry herself did not consider that the slate had been, or could be, wiped clean.

One of her fellow prisoners, Dr. Louise Le Porz, who had testified against her in the 1940s, came to think that she had atoned: In 2012 she told Heminway, “Sixty years ago ... I would have turned my back on her. ... Today, ... knowing her suffering, realizing the beauty she made of her career, and knowing how much she has done for humanity, my reaction would be different. I would embrace her.”

“In Full Flight” is a fascinating inquiry into the nature of human evil, the circumstances under which otherwise good people might commit evil acts and the question of whether one can ever actually atone for such acts.

Despite the subtitle’s reference to “Africa,” however, the book tells us nothing about Africa. The fact that Spoerry made her remarkable medical career in Kenya does not mean that “Africa” in Heminway’s hyperbolic personification had been “protective.”

There are at least two Joseph Conrad novels, “Lord Jim" and “Under Western Eyes,” that directly address the theme of atonement and lives lived under the shadow of guilt for a terrible moral lapse, but in a book that addresses the heart of darkness represented by Nazi death camps, it is irksome to find a page-long prefatory quotation from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” a novella whose baleful calumny has skewed non-Africans’ perceptions of the continent for over a century.

Reviewer Simon Lewis teaches African literature at the College of Charleston.