It is the Fifties in an isolated outport in Newfoundland. Nothing penetrates this antiquated existence, as television, telephones, cars, even roads, elude the villagers and the only visitors are fog-bound fishermen. Here, outside of Haire’s Hollow, lives 14-year old Kit Pitman with her mentally handicapped mother Josie both women cared for and protected by the indomitable Lizzie, Kit’s grandmother. The three live a life of some hardship, but much love, punctuated by the change of seasons in the isolated gully where they live.
Then a tragic change in their circumstances brings back an old threat that Josie be sent to an institution and Kit to an orphanage. Advancing this argument is the Reverend Ropson, who from the pulpit decries Josie as the “Gully Tramp.” Defending the women is Doc Hodgson, who brought Kit into the world and knows the secrets of her birth. An uneasy truce is forged, with the Reverend’s son Sid acting as spy and woodcutter, while village women supply food and gossip. Josie delights in Sid’s visits, and Kit grows to love him.
There is another menace in Haire’s Hollow the notorious rapist and killer known as Shine. When Shine attacks Kit in a drunken rage, it sets off a chain of events that leads to further violence and a terrible revelation. Kit and Sid must decide which laws of God and man apply in their despairing world and how much misery they can bear.
Kit’s Law is a stunning debut written with the stark rawness of character and landscape of the Rock itself. It evokes the lyrical gifts of E. Annie Proulx, the emotional power of Wally Lamb, and the compelling storytelling of Ann-Marie MacDonald. At its centre is the innocence and determination of Kit herself, a young woman who experiences extremes of pain on the way to redemption. As she says: “It is better to sense nothing at all, to move through the world and glimpse it from a distance, then to split God’s gift in half and live in its underside, with no rays of light dispersing the darkness.”
The savage was Margaret Eveleigh the next day in school when she hurtled a folded piece of paper on top of my desk with “GULLY TRAMP’S GIRL—I’M GOING TO KILL YOU” scratched across it. Turning around in his seat, Willard Gale, second cousin to Rube Gale, with clusters of sores crowding his raw, reddened nostrils and his dirt-grimed hair smelling as rancid as stale fat, snatched the note out of my hands and stuffed it in his pocket.
“Willard!” snapped the teacher, Mr. Haynes. Grabbing the leather strap off the wall with large, chalky hands, he stomped down the aisle, his chunky legs hitting against the sides of everyone’s desks as he come. Willard cringed back in his seat, his chin bowed to his chest, and I quickly ducked my head into a book.
“What did you put in your pocket?” asked Mr. Haynes.
Willard said nothing.
“Hold out your hand!”
Willard crouched deeper and . . . Crack! The leather belt smacked across the top of his desk.
“I said hold—out—your—hand!” Mr. Haynes ground out, and I knew without looking that his longish black hair had fallen over his forehead by now, and that the red bulb of his nose had changed into a livid purple.
Swish! The belt whistled through the air and thudded dully across padded flesh. Willard cried out, and he must’ve pulled his hand back because all I heard for the next savaged minute was the swishing of the belt smacking across the top of his desk, over and over and over, until Willard started bawling, more from the fright I allows, than of having the belt hit him. Then Mr. Haynes stomped back to the front of the room and, picking up a piece of chalk, scrawled across the board “I will not tell tales out of school” and ordered all of us to write the sentence one hundred times in our scribblers. Then, while we were writing as fast as our arms would let us, he marched up and down the aisle, ripping the pages out of our scribblers as we filled them up, and scrunching them into little balls, fired them into the coal bucket along the side of the stove at the back of the classroom.
The bell rung for recess, saving us from more writing, and flexing my fingers to get the cramp out of my hand, I ran out of the schoolhouse into the yard, savouring the fresh-smelling air. I had hardly filled my lungs when Margaret grabbed me by the collar and shoved me up against the picket fence.
“Your mother’s a tramp and your grandmother’s a loud-mouth pig and you tell her I don’t look like no tramp of hers—you hear me, Gully Tramp’s Girl?”
I stood still as anything as Mr. Haynes, his hair smoothed back over his forehead and his nose still flecked with purple, come up behind Margaret.
“What’s the matter, Margaret?”
Margaret dropped her hands by her side and give Mr. Haynes a pouty look.
“Kit called me a tramp.”
I gaped at Margaret like a guppy fish and tried to keep my face straight as Mr. Haynes bent over, boring heavily squinted eyes into mine. I stiffened as he laid a heavy hand on my shoulder and gave me a little shake.
“Apologize to Margaret,” he said quietly.
“I’m sorry,” I half whispered.
“Say it agin!”
“Say—I’m—sorry—Margaret!” he stated slowly, lips peeling back over gritted teeth.
“I’m s-sorry, Margaret.”
He kept staring at me, his fingers digging into my shoulder, and my eyes wavered, not able to go far, as his face was a scant inch from mine, mostly to the bulb of his nose, and I saw that it wasn’t that his nose was purple, but that it looked purple from the dozens of tiny reddish veins meshing it.
“Is that all right, Margaret?” he asked, his eyes still searching out mine.
“Thank you, Mr. Haynes,” said Margaret, smiling sweetly. Then she ran off, leaving me struggling between the meshed, red veins and the boring, squinting eyes.
“Do you remember what I told you about reform school, girl?” he asked, his voice dropping lower, still.
"Donna Morrissey has created in Kit's Law an extraordinary trinity of women, and charted for our vast entertainment their piquant and heroic adjustments in relation to those who have power in Newfoundland's Haire's Hollow — men such as the starchy Reverend Ropson, his son Sid, the local doctor, and the murdering, raping jailbird Shine. Comparisons to Annie Proulx are inevitable, but Kit's Law exists in a valley of its own saying, and in the directness of its tone, establishes its own authority."
— Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's List
Like a twentieth-century Brontë sister, Morrissey indulges in the full spectrum of passion and tragedy, sin and redemption, despair and impossible optimism...[Kit's Law makes for a helluva good read."
— The Daily News (Halifax)
"[Kit's Law] pursues its homage to melodrama to a beautifully structured resolution that speaks directly to the heart."
— The Globe and Mail
"A stunning debut novel from a very talented writer.
— The Telegram (St. John's, Nfld.)
Can you tell us a little about your background—where you grew up, things you've done?
I was a high school drop-out, travelled around the country wearing beads and head bands for several years, had a "love-child," married and then had another. A family tragedy sent me back to Newfoundland and it was then, during my late twenties/early thirties, that I started understanding culture and the magnificence of the culture I had inherited. A divorce and a university degree later, I started writing.
How did you got started as a fiction-writer?
I met a Jungian type who prompted me to start writing, arguing "you're the first person I ever met who I'd rather listen to than talk to." That was about nine years ago. I picked up the pen and was instantly addicted. I've been writing every single solitary day since. And I wouldn't recommend it to anybody for it imprisons you for life.
How did you come to write Kit s Law?
It started out as a short story about an old woman and twenty-five cats. Eight pages later a cat was supposed to die in the old woman's arms. It didn't, and out of boredom the old woman glanced around the room and her eyes lit upon a picture on her mantle of a young man named Sid, and a young girl whose mother used to run wild down a gully and I thought—oh, well, the old woman has a past, so I followed it, and it led to Kit Pittman in Haire's Hollow ... I think I was into the second last chapter when I realized there'd be no old woman and a cat dying in her arms ...
There s a lot of the flavour of Newfoundland—the language, the people, the geography—in Kit's Law. Was it a challenge to tailor the local feel so that it is authentic but still could be understood by people who haven t lived in or been to Newfoundland?
No. The characters are what is primary to a novel. The plot is what brings them out—how they react, how they feel, think, etc., and it is these feelings, emotions that are common to people of all races. Once you ve engaged your reader in your character, then all else follows. The culture becomes the cradle for your story and no doubt culture impacts, often enough, on the behaviour and thinking of a character, but emotions are what rules.
You now live in Halifax. Is Nova Scotia proving to be a source of inspiration for any future fiction?
That remains to be seen. Currently my mind still seeks to go back—my current novel in progress dates back to the 1930s in rural Newfoundland. But, undoubtedly, several of the characters are inspired by individuals I've met both here in Halifax and in Moncton, New Brunswick.
Your second novel, Downhill Chance, has just been published. Are you working on something else now, or are you taking a break?
No break. As I just mentioned I've started my third novel and am deeply involved in the researching of it. God, I hate research ...
Who are some other writers whose work you admire?
I love George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens ... Alistair MacLeod paints images I'll never forget, Alice Munro is beautiful, and I thought Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood was a fantastic novel ... Frank Parker Day's Rockbound makes me jealous that I didn't write it, but Carl Gustav Jung is the greatest writer, thinker of our time.