Sunset Song – Lewis Grassic Gibbon (James Leslie Mitchell)
When I was attending high school in Dunfermline, I don’t recall studying any Scottish authors whatsoever. English and American, yes, but no Scots.
It was only later in life and by way of a television adaptation that I was introduced to the works of Grassic Gibbon. He was born and grew up in Kincardineshire (also known as The Mearns), which, due to the vagaries of successive reorganizations of local government, no longer exists as a separate entity. Sunset Song is a longish short story, the first in a trilogy and all based in The Mearns. Like his famous predecessor Robert Burns, Grassic Gibbon captures rural life, speech and attitudes perfectly – in fact I think of him as a kind of novelist successor to Burns.
In the book Chris Guthrie’s mother kills her baby twins and herself after learning she is pregnant yet again. Chris, her older brother Will, and her father send two younger children to stay with relatives and continue to run the farm on their own. Will emigrates to Argentina with his young bride, Mollie Douglas because he and his father argue constantly. Chris is left to do all the work around the house when her father suffers a debilitating stroke and eventually dies.
Chris marries Ewan Tavendale, a young farmer, and the happily married pair have a son, whom they also call Ewan. After World War I erupts, Ewan Sr. and many other young men join up. Ewan dies in the war, after a leave visit that proves he is much altered by his experiences, and Chris learns later that Ewan was shot as a deserter.
The book touches on many fundamental dilemmas of life, both personal and more wide-ranging; changing farming methods, relationships, pacifism, patriotism etc. I found it dually compelling, for its Scottish depictions and for its portrayal of people caught in difficult situations.
Finally – Grassic Gibbon, like Burns, invented a kind of fairly accessible half way house between Scots and English that retains just enough of Kincardineshire ‘spik’ for authenticity.
This is regarded as one of the greatest 20th Century works of Scottish literature and I heartily recommend it.
PS – a new movie version was made in 2015 and is due for release in the US in April 2016. The trailer looks gorgeous! https://youtu.be/sQqqkTdwv50