Today’s post is another book review, this time focusing on The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson. I’m going a little bit more in-depth with this one, partly because I really enjoyed the novel, but also because I got the chance to discuss it in university last week which really got me thinking about it. I’ll admit, though, there are a few spoilers below so don’t say I didn’t warn you! I’ve included some references, too, along with correlating page numbers, so I’ll tell you that my copy is the B&W Publishing Edinburgh edition which is pictured above.
Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes is a beautiful and vivid account of Janie MacVean’s spirited resilience in the face of profound deprivation. The novel excellently captures the reality of Scotland for its working class citizens in the 1920s, whilst being a striking autobiography of Kesson’s own life. Set in Elgin, we follow the journey of the MacVean family. Janie and her mother are living and growing up in ‘the Lane’ – a backstreet hidden away which is home to many living in extreme poverty. Despite its dirtiness and the fact that its overly crowded, it makes Janie extraordinarily happy as she refers to the area as her home. She knows no better…that is until social services arrive, bringing with them the dreaded threat of the orphanage. Janie’s contented childhood takes a drastic turn and we are able to watch her development in new surroundings.
Personally, I adore this book, mainly because I cannot help but love the character of Janie. She constantly relies on her imagination throughout the course of the novel and perhaps that is because it’s the only stable thing that she has in her life which she can always turn to. For instance, Annie Frigg, a fellow neighbour, is constantly asking Janie to run errands for her, and in return she gives Janie multiple empty promises such as clothes and toys: ‘what about the toy piano she promised you? And the skipping rope? And all the other things she was going to give you for carrying her water?’ (3). Although Janie ‘knew within [herself] that they might never come true’, it still was something to ‘dream about’ and ‘look forward to’ (5), showing her endlessly positive imagination. It is because of this that Janie learns ‘to enjoy the prospect more than the reality’ (59) in later life. Furthermore, her imagination is her only form of entertainment as she is without toys and games due to her disadvantages and social position.
It can also be said that she uses her imagination as an escape mechanism to avoid the harsh reality of life. She imagines that the Lane she lives in is just like an adventure, despite it actually being a place riddled with diseases and occupied by those facing extreme poverty. In fact, she goes as far as calling it the ‘perfect way of life’ (46), and talks of her love for it at multiple points throughout the novel. It is this wild yet positive imagination that gives Janie drive and motivation to have such an ambitious and optimistic outlook on life all of the time, and she always seems utterly content and happy with her life.
As well as awful living conditions, Janie has to deal with the fact that Liza is not the best mother to her. She chose to raise a child in a dirty, unsuitable environment and works as a prostitute to fund their basic needs and necessities. It’s because of this that Janie is taken by the ‘Cruelty Man’ to an orphanage at the closing of the novel. However, Janie appears to remain quite innocent and naïve about the situation, like she knows no better. Even when Janie returns home to find her mother with a man, whom she has clearly been paid by in return for sex, Janie remains oblivious to the reality of what is going on and rather, she finds comfort in her mother to talk of one of their neighbour’s unfortunate deaths… ‘Those rare moments of communication between Janie and her mother more than made up for the other things lacking in their relationship. And yet, if these moments never existed, it would have been so much easier for Janie in the years to come’ (60). It’s because of their struggles that Janie remains driven, as she wants to improve the situation as best as she could for both of them; ‘we’ll have a house in the country, Mam. Mind, we always wanted that. With a garden and nasturtiums and a goat. We’ll never live in the Lane again. We’ll have plenty of money when I’m educated, you see; that will only be a few years now’ (122). Ultimately, you could go as far as saying that it is her mother’s poor parenting that encourages Janie to better herself.
Unfortunately, although we see Janie grow and progress throughout the novel – she even gets told that she has made ‘excellent progress at school’ and that ‘her English papers were the best in Aberdeenshire’ (143) – she still gets knocked back and prevented from developing further. She is advised to take up a ‘under-housemaid’s job […] in some good household’, rather than embarking on further education like she desires. However, Janie’s sense of personality and motivation bursts out once more when she insists ‘I don’t want to dust and polish […] and I don’t want to work on a farm. I want to write poetry. Great poetry. As great as Shakespeare’ (145), which is the perfect way to close the novel as it just sums up Janie’s progress and imagination perfectly as she refuses to give up on her wildest dreams.
The fact that this book is based on Kesson’s own life is the best part about it; it makes the whole situation and adventure so realistic and relatable. She too was taken in to an orphanage aged eight and then was forced into domestic service, rather than entering further education as she wished. Eventually, after many years, opportunities to write emerged for her and I am so glad that they did, or else we wouldn’t have access to this amazing story.
I would definitely recommend reading this one! If you do, or already have, leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts and feelings about it.
Buy my copy of the book //ws-eu.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=GB&source=ac&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=rachaelreads-21&marketplace=amazon®ion=GB&placement=1873631693&asins=1873631693&linkId=274fb008ca3b56248dd90abe1bdea45d&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=false&price_color=333333&title_color=0066c0&bg_color=ffffff“>here: