Sunset Song, the first novel in the trilogy A Scots Quair, is certainly the best known and perhaps the most finely crafted of the three books. The reader becomes acquainted with Chris Guthrie as a young girl growing up on a small farm near Kinraddie. At an early age, she is a Chris divided (as Scotland is being divided): an English Chris and a Scottish Chris; a Chris who loves books and learning and culture and a Chris who loves the land and the sky and the roll of the seasons. This ongoing personal and social struggle is at the soul of all three novels.
After being sent to school and entertaining dreams of continuing her education and becoming a schoolteacher, Chris falls in love with and marries a young local crofter, Ewan Tavendale. With this decision, she realizes that she is happiest when she is working with the land and the natural world, and she settles into a nearly idyllic pastoral life with Ewan. In time, they have a son, and as they rear him and harvest their meager crops, they become detachedly aware of the approaching war. Determined to maintain their hard but safe life, they claim that the war and the outside world will have no effect on them, but in time, as friends enlist and are killed, and even the sheltering woods are cut down to provide for the war effort, Ewan himself angrily enlists. The war, so antithetical to his life and very nature, brutalizes Ewan until he is changed virtually beyond Chris’s recognition. Ultimately, he is shot as a deserter when he tries simply to walk away from the insanity and madness around him.
Chris’s world is shattered, but she accepts her fate and finds healing with the help of her friends and the new young minister, Robert Colquohoun, whom she marries at the end of the novel. Their story continues in the second book, Cloud Howe.
The end of the war does not bring an end to social injustice in Scotland and the bitter inequities of the class system. In Cloud Howe, Chris and Robert move from the small farming community of Kinraddie to a larger parish in nearby Segget. Robert has come home from the war wounded but zealous to fight the battle for social equity. This new war is the main focus of the novel, and while the reader sees Robert primarily through Chris’s eyes, he is, in fact, the central character in Cloud Howe. Robert’s continuing spiral into futility and depression is chronicled in his repeated and varying attempts to bring about change, first by example, then by attempting to convince men to change their character, and finally by helping to organize strikes and conduct marches. Chris’s life is fairly static as she rears young Ewan and longs for another child with Robert. Basically a nonbeliever, she nevertheless supports Robert in his Christian calling while remaining uninvolved herself. Eventually, the longed-for pregnancy occurs, but Chris’s one act of aid for Robert’s cause, a rainy-night search to warn him and his fellow strikers of potential physical harm, results in a tragic miscarriage and a long illness for Chris. Robert is plunged into deep despair, and his moods turn unalterably darker; he shuts Chris out of his life both emotionally and sexually.
Robert becomes convinced that social activism is ultimately pointless after Christ appears to him to tell him that His Second Coming is at hand. As Robert’s health declines (in part as a result of his war injuries), he becomes more and more detached and visionary. He is jarred back to reality when a parishioner’s baby is badly mauled by rats, and he realizes that, for the poor, waiting one more day for the Second Coming could be too long. After a physically exhausting bicycle ride in the cold night to be with the baby’s family, he goes home to write a flaming sermon on social injustice and dies in the pulpit as he is delivering it. Once again, Chris’s safe world comes crashing down around her, and the novel ends with Chris out walking in the brae, contemplating the changes that must now come to her life,...
(The entire section is 1,147 words.)