Donna Morrissey - Kit's Law

Morrissey's debut novel Kit's Law became an international bestseller when it was published in 1999 to reviews comparing her to the Bronte sisters and to Annie Proulx (a comparison not without irony, as Morrissey has been vocal in criticising the American writer for her caricature of Newfoundland in The Shipping News). Kit's Law is an outport Bildungsroman with a touch of gothic romance. The novel traces out the development of fourteen-year-old Kit Pitman through numerous trials that begin when her caretaker, Grandmother Lizzy, dies. Lizzy has been responsible for both Kit and Kit's mentally disabled mother Josie; her death puts both Kit and Josie at risk of being institutionalized because the community elite and its influential reverend desire to purge the town of "Gully Tramp" and her girl.

Josie, because of her mental disabilities and lack of agency, is unable to take care of herself and her reputation. In the eyes of the townspeople, Josie is fallen, a sinner, symbolized by the smell of "rotting dogberries" that accompanies her whenever she has been with men. Even Kit's lineage is in dispute, as none of the loyal town husbands admits to fathering Kit; discerning who it might be is complicated because of Josie's promiscuity. Figuring out who made Josie pregnant, as Lizzy puts it, would "be like asking which bean in the can made her fart." The townspeople monitor Kit's features as she grows, waiting for genetic signs that prove who had an affair with Josie (never mind that some still do). The novel deals with the theme of sin, manifested in the image of deformity—mental in the case of Josie, and physical in the case of Kit's webbed toes. Clearly, though, Josie cannot recognize when she is doing right or wrong, meaning that she is victimized by sinners hidden behind the robes of respectability. Despite the townspeoples' condemnation of them, both Kit and Josie are victims of others' sins.

After Lizzy's death, the town swoops in to deport Kit and Josie, something they could not accomplish as long as Lizzy was alive. Kit longs for peace from their interference and insensitive ways, as the women snoop around her personal belongings. Even their children ostracize Kit—especially when the reverend's son Sidney, an outcast himself, falls in love with her. Haire's Hollow, an outport in Newfoundland, is itself secluded, and the main characters live outside the community geographically and socially, making them even more isolated. While Kit is at mercy from the town, she is also a strong figure who manages to keep her mother in their house. Though she enlists the help of Sid and Doctor Hodgins, Kit proves herself to be one of a line of steadfast Pitman women. She cleverly arranges for narcoleptic Aunt Drucie to take care of them, even though Drucie sleeps while Kit does most of the household chores and tries to keep up the illusion that Drucie cares for them.

The town's insistence that Kit and Josie be institutionalized is at odds with Kit's maturity. The threat of institutionalizing the disabled pervades this work, even though the narrative makes it clear that Josie enjoys constant stimulation with company and family. Perhaps Kit is too old to be threatened with institutionalization, for it is mentioned throughout the novel that young women of Kit's age are often married with their own families. Kit and Josie's perceived vulnerability is related to gender norms; only when men like Doctor Hodgins step in does the town back away from threatening Kit. To readers, however, it is clear that Kit and her family are capable of dealing with emergencies, evident when Josie handles a confrontation with Shine, a local moonshiner and murderer.

While the subject matter becomes melodramatic at times, the understated prose makes the melodrama almost commonplace to Kit's world. Some reviewers have criticized stereotypical characters like the compassionate country doctor, the railing reverend, or the gossiping goodwives of the town, though these characters do serve to highlight the complexities of Kit's characterization. As well, the novel is narrated by Kit in the first person, meaning that the townspeople are seen through the perspective of a fourteen-year-old. While she is a relatively reliable narrator, she does see people in archetypal terms—especially the townspeople who try to interfere with her life.

A chapter from Kit's Law called "Grieving Nan" was included in the anthology Atlantica: Stories from the Maritimes and Newfoundland. The novel itself was shortlisted for the 2000 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Chapters First Novel Award, and won the Libris, First Time Author of the Year Award, the 2002 Alex Awards from the American Library Association, and the Winifred Holtby Prize.