Jessie Kesson - The White Bird Passes (1958)
- Aaron Kelly
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Although Kesson's novel gleans its title from Fiona MacLeod's poem 'The Valley of the White Poppies' (Fiona MacLeod being the pen name of the 19th century writer William Sharp, who is rightly associated with the most sentimentalising and kitsch excesses of the Kailyard), The White Bird Passes offers a stark and haunting account of the deprivations and poverty of its central character Janie in the 1920s. The novel uses as its raw material Kesson's own childhood hardship, her mother's recourse to prostitution, her unknown father, and her being taken into care in an orphanage. The White Bird Passes distils Kesson's compassionate and indomitable siding with the 'ootlin' or outsider in her work, a recurrent recuperation of the voices and perspectives of those outwith communal and societal norms and opinions. The 'home' into which Janie is placed is the antithesis of all that we commonly expect from home - familiarity, belonging, stability - and this sense of a home that is actually the site of profound displacement also typifies a great deal of Scottish writing.
It transpires that Janie's real name is Shona but that her authoritarian grandfather refuses to let her mother or Janie use this due to her illegitimacy and the attendant dishonour. Again this double inheritance, especially the lost or repressed Gaelic genealogy of her own identity, bespeaks a wider Scottish predicament about the self and culture being always at least double if not multiple.
This Gaelic inheritance is also transmitted through folk culture and tradition and it is through the singing of songs and telling of stories with her mother and grandmother that Janie awakens a 'secret self'. Indeed, The White Bird Passes is also of enormous importance in anticipating contemporary waves of women's and feminist writing in Scotland for it grants a subversive space shared by these women through which they may articulate their marginalised experiences and concerns.
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