The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson was first published in 1958. It’s very autobiographical, based on Kesson’s poverty stricken childhood in a small town in the Scottish Highlands.
Liza McVean is a young unmarried woman and mother to Janie who is 8 years old at the beginning of the book. They live in ‘the lane’ which is a slum area of the town. There don’t seem to be many men around, the lane is ‘run’ by a few prominent women in the community one of whom makes sure that the people in the lanes abide by her rule of which toilet they should use. It seems there were only two outside toilets for the whole community.
In some ways it seems like a loving and caring place to grow up, despite the poverty, bugs, nits and the fact that some of the women are obviously ‘on the game’ as their only means of surviving. In fact Liza herself seems to have been pushed down that road too and it’s probably that which makes the ‘cruelty man’ decide to remove Janie from her home and have her placed in an orphanage.
Liza had had a good upbringing herself as the reader can see when the two of them go off to visit her mother on the family farm. The mother is welcoming but Liza’s father doesn’t acknowledge either of them. I suppose Liza had brought shame on him and there was never going to be any forgiveness for that, so Liza and Janie are left to sink or swim and under the circumstances sinking is much more likely.
The first part of this book was really good probably because she was reminiscing on what had been for her happy times but it sort of ran downhill when Janie was taken away to the orphanage. She did eventually get over being torn from her mother whom she had really loved and she turned out to have a brain and a real aptitude for learning and writing in particular but those in charge of the orphanage didn’t believe that a female from such circumstances should be given the chance to rise above them and get an education.
Given that the book is set in the 1920s, that attitude to females isn’t the least bit surprising as it wasn’t any better in the 1970s and it was only fairly recently that it dawned on me that, of all of my many schoolfriends, it was only the ones who had no brothers who were allowed to go on to college or university. I actually overheard my own mother saying to another woman – “There’s no point in putting any effort into daughters as they just grow up to push prams”!! It’s a wonder more of us didn’t go doo-lally.
I read this one as part of the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.