The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

Life in the Lane…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Little Janie McVean has grown up on Lady’s Lane, a place ruled over by the women for most of the time, till the men come home from work and make it theirs for a while. No man comes home to Janie’s house though – or perhaps too many. For although Janie is too young to understand, the reader soon discerns that her mother, Liza, is a prostitute, along with some of the other women who live in the Lane. Janie doesn’t care – to her this is the only possible life, and though she has only one dress and often goes hungry and dirty and has nits in her hair, she’s happy. She has friends who are just like her and an interest in people of all sorts, and she loves to watch and listen to the women of the Lane. So when the Cruelty Man comes calling, to Janie the real cruelty is the threat of being taken away from the mother she adores, however bad a parent she may be.

Largely autobiographical, the book is set in the town of Elgin in the north of Scotland in the 1920s. Because it’s so well known to be based on Kesson’s own early life, there’s a feeling of reassurance for the reader – however painful it is to watch the neglect of this child, we know she survives and pulls herself out of the poverty of her beginnings. This makes it an easier, less tense read than it might otherwise have been, allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.

Book 66 of 90

“About that doll you’re to get, I’ve got an idea it might be lying under some bits of things that’s come from America. Some bits belonging to my cousin’s bairn; just your size she is. And my word there’s some bonnie bits that will fit you. There’s a blue velvet frock for one thing. And a ribbon to go with it. I’m having a sort out just now. And when I’ve sorted out, you’re the queanie that’s going to get the fine surprise, or my name’s not Annie Frigg!”

Janie emerged as always, empty handed but full-visioned after an encounter with Annie, and with but one small doubt, how to share the delight of this new promise with Gertie, who could never see that something to look forward to, and something to dream about, were such glad things, even when you knew within yourself that they might never come true.

The writing is wonderful, managing to give a real flavour of the local speech without ever becoming hard for standard English speakers to understand. It’s told in the third person, in the language of adults, but the perspective comes almost entirely through the lens of eight-year-old Janie’s observant but sometimes uncomprehending eyes. So it’s up to the reader to fill in the blanks, and sometimes it’s in these spaces that the true pathos of Janie’s life is shown – a pathos Janie doesn’t feel at this young age. Her mother comes from a respectable and rather well-off family, and sometimes they visit Janie’s grandmother – another warm and loving, if occasional, presence in Janie’s life. But her grandfather’s reaction to Liza and Janie lets the reader know how badly the family feels Liza has disgraced them, and gives us pointers as to how she fell from here all the way down to the Lane. It’s a hard story, told with warmth and empathy and no bitterly pointed finger of blame from the adult Kesson.

Jessie Kesson

As well as her clear-sighted but sympathetic portrayal of the Lane and its inhabitants, Kesson also has an excellent eye for the landscape and nature of the area, and the ability to weave her fine descriptive prose seamlessly so that it becomes part of the story. Their mutual love of the countryside is part of the bond between mother and daughter.

The wind had begun to threaten the air. Passionately she had longed for the wind to come. To blow herself and the landscape sky high into movement and coherence again. Almost she had been aware of the wind’s near fierceness. Ready to plunge the furious hillside burns down into the Cladda river. To hurl the straws all over the dykes. To toss the chaff into the eyes of the protesting people, bending before it, flapping in their clothes like scarecrows. To sting the trees in Carron wood into hissing rebellion. To give the land some loud, loud cry, other than that of pain.

When the Cruelty Man takes Janie off to the orphanage, the story suddenly contracts, with years covered in just a few pages. This feels a bit disconcerting, but actually I think it probably works better than it would have if Kesson had devoted more time to that section. One gathers that her time there was neither wonderful nor terrible – she was just stuck in a kind of limbo until her life could resume. The real story is of the Lane, and of the love between child and mother that transcends the things that society determines to be good parenting. The ending is bittersweet – the tragedies of Janie’s young life tempered always by the knowledge that she will survive and rise. A beautiful book that challenges the reader to be slow to judge – to accept that love and even joyousness can sometimes be found in the darkest circumstances. Highly recommended.

Book 16 of 20

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33 thoughts on “The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

    • I think I might have found it hard to believe that someone could have survived it so well, if it had been total fiction. Knowing it was autobiographical definitely made me view it differently. Haha, three books still to read and 6 days to go… 😱

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  1. Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain came to mind while reading your review. This sounds a little like a female equivalant set decades before. Stuart also manages dialect well on the page, a rare thing. Adding this one to my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve heard good things about Shuggie Bain – must try to fit it in to my Scottish list! I think catching the dialect without making it too hard to read is a real skill, and one that not many authors do well, so it’s always a delight when it happens. 😀

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  2. A Scottish book which wasn’t about the Jacobites, and actually turned out to be a good read? I like the sound of this, especially the lack of judgement, and obvious love and compassion the daughters both real and fictional feel towards their mothers. I’ve added it to my ever-growing list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha, I know! I can’t tell you how relieved I was that not once was Bonnie Prince Charlie so much as mentioned! This is exactly the kind of book I was hoping to find when I started searching for Scottish classics. I think you’ll enjoy this one – little Janie wormed her way into even my hard unmaternal heart!

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  3. This sounds fantastic, FictionFan! Not only does it give a look at a certain place, time, way of life, and so on, but it also sends some subtle and not-so-subtle messages about social structure. To me, that says a lot for a book. It sounds as though there’s warmth and wit in this, too. And it’s not easy to write from the viewpoint of a child; I give her credit for doing that well.

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    • So good to be actually singing the praises of a Scottish classic, and no Jacobites to be seen! 😉 Yes, I thought it was a real picture of the culture and not altogether unrecognisable to me, although from several decades before my own childhood. Some of the songs the kids sang took me straight back to the playground, while the woman sang songs my mother used to sing. Really a lovely book!

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  4. Sounds as if you really enjoyed this one, FF! What a powerful story, and knowing ahead of time that she survives and thrives would make it easier to wade through the dark portions. Probably not for me — certainly not during a pandemic! — but maybe some time afterward.

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    • I did, Debbie, and I really wasn’t expecting to from the blurb so that it was a great surprise too! I did find it easier knowing that she survived and had a full life, and despite the tough story, there’s so much humour and warmth in it too – a lovely read!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Despite being such a difficult topic, it sounds like it was handled quite well…though I can imagine knowing it’s fairly autobiographical did make it tougher to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I might have found it tougher if I hadn’t known that clearly little Janie grew up and thrived. She wormed her way into even my hard heart! And I love the author pic – she looks just like I’d have imagined Janie to turn out! 😀

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  6. You’ve just reminded me that I started and The Cruelty Men by Emer Martin and got distracted by something shiny. That book is quite lengthy. Perhaps I should warm myself up by reading this one first. It sounds really well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t heard of that one but looking at Goodreads it does look as though it covers similar ground, though we only learn about Janie’s childhood in this one. I don’t think the “Cruelty Man” still existed as such when I was a kid (or maybe I was just a lucky kid), but lots of the stuff in this was still recognisable from my own, later Scottish childhood…

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  7. I love the sound of this one-and as you point out, wouldn’t be *as* hard to read knowing the author survives and flourishes. Reading about children being neglected is always difficult though…is it told from a child’s perspective, or is it more of an adult looking back? i.e. is it in childish language? We all know how difficult that is to pull off! hahah

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    • It’s sort of told by an adult voice but relating the child’s impressions at her age without adult interpretation, if that makes any sense. So it doesn’t have that annoying childish voice, happily!

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  8. Never heard of this book or even the author, but this review has me wanting to read it. Two Scots in one month, and looking forward to this second after Graeme Macrae Burnet’s wonderful The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, which I am reviewing shortly on the blog. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad to be recommending a Scots book after a little run of disappointing ones. I’ll be looking out for your review of the Burnet – in my opinion, he’s our best current writer.

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    • I hope so too – I’m sure you’d love this one too! She frequently gives little snatches of the songs the children play to, or the mothers sing, and they whisked me straight back to my own childhood and to my own mother singing those songs… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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