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A Reader's Guide

Kit's Law

• Winner of the Canadian Booksellers Association First-Time Author of the Year Award

"A stunning debut novel from a very talented writer." —Telegraph (London)

"Beautifully structured...Speaks directly to the heart." —Globe and Mail (Toronto)

"A cast of characters that fall into the category of unforgettable." —Sunday Business Post (Dublin)

"If you were to perch on a treetop and look down on Fox Cove, you would see a gully." And near the edge of that gully you would see "a grey, weather-beaten house, its windows opened to the sea, and its walls slanted back, as if beaten into the hillside by the easterly winds gusting off the Atlantic . . . And if you were to hop onto a windowsill and look inside that house, you would see three women." Those three women are the outspoken Lizzy Pitman ("I've had all the preachin' me stomach can take for one mornin'!"), her retarded daughter Josie, and Josie's twelve-year-old daughter Kit. Kit is both the narrator and central character of this powerful debut novel from a gifted Canadian storyteller.

In the beginning, isolation is all Kit knows. She, Josie, and Lizzy live just outside Haire's Hollow, a small Newfoundland fishing community. Kit's isolation is compounded by the mystery surrounding her illegitimate birth and by the scorn that the self-righteous Reverend Ropson and others throw at her and Josie. Josie herself, oblivious to the villagers' derision, often runs wild along the beach. Truth be told, Josie goes running whenever a car or truck horn sounds. Lizzy does her utmost to protect both Kit and Josie from the disdain of the more pious townsfolk; but when Lizzy dies suddenly, Kit and her childlike mother are left vulnerable to the forces that threaten to tear them apart.

For awhile, it appears that the wise Doctor Hodgins can make certain that Kit has the space and time to mature and care for her mother. But fate, especially in the person of Reverend Ropson's defiant son, intervenes, and a wrenching story ensues. With exceptional grace of style and command of language, Morrissey renders the deeply rooted links between daughter and mother, Kit's passage from girlhood to womanhood, the surprising blessings and costs of love, and one bold and steadfast person's confrontation with life itself. A novel of almost mythical power, Kit's Law—in Thomas Kenneally's words—"exists in the valley of its own saying and, in the directness of its tone, establishes its own authority."

Questions for Discussion

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of Kit's Law for every reader.

1. How do young Kit's lonely games and fantasies help her cope with the world and her own disadvantages? In what ways are those games and fantasies similar to and, at the same time, different from those of children her age everywhere? What life-enabling games and fantasies do others—land you—engage in?

2. "Timin's everything," Lizzy pronounces, "but sometimes, 'tis only the hand of God that can save ye." Are Lizzy's, Josie's, and Kit's fates the result of timing, luck, and divine providence, or of personal choice and action?

3. In what ways does Morrissey portray conflicts between individuals and the community? What characters take it upon themselves to speak for the community, and which resist community intrusion into their lives? What are the motivations and purposes of each group?

4. When Mrs. Haynes offers to bake bread for Kit and Josie, Doctor Hodgins exclaims, "It's in the hearts of people like you where miracles are born, and where would we be without miracles?" What "miracles" are born in Haire's Hollow, and in whose hearts? How are lives of individuals changed in consequence?

5. What happens when everyone, to use Sid's terms, "starts thinking that theirs is the only colour" through which to see the world? What instances are there in Kit's Law of characters seeing and behaving on the basis of a monochrome world? What are the restrictive consequences, for oneself and others, of one's seeing the world through only one color?

6. Doctor Hodgins asks Kit if it is sacrifice or fear that keeps her in the house by the gully. Which would you say it is? Or is it something else entirely, something that Kit cannot yet articulate, nor the doctor—for all his perceptiveness—recognize?

7. "Fear, shame, it was hard to tell which was causing the trembling in my voice," Kit comments, following Shine's killing of Pirate. What kinds of fear and shame, both real and false, occur in Kit's Law, and how do they affect the characters' individual and group behavior? What enables some to overcome fear and shame?

8. What people and what events most influence Kit's progression from a cowed, dependent twelve-year-old girl to a responsible, decisive young woman capable of caring for both herself and her mother? To what extent is that progression believable and convincing, and to what extent is it implausible?

9. After Josie kills Shine, Sid counters Kit's fear of God's law and the use that Reverend Ropson makes of it: "Isn't that what we all do, sometimes? Take God's law and make it ours? . . . But there are other laws, God's laws too, I suppose . . . But they aren't so clearly written.'" What "laws" govern the behavior of Morrissey's characters? Which of these can be clearly seen as "God's laws", and which "aren't so clearly written"? What attitude toward these laws does Kit adopt, and what kind of law does she create for herself?

10. When did you first think that you knew who Kit's father was? What ambiguities are clarified by this knowledge? What further ironies—especially those created by the conflict between what we know and what Kit, Sid, and others don't yet know—ensue? How do those ironies add to the story's drama?

11. A few weeks after Sid's trial, Doctor Hodgins exclaims, "We're weak! Broken! Still answering to the truths of our youth." What does he mean by "still answering to the truths of our youth"? In what ways do we all eventually answer to the truths of our youth? What does Kit later mean when she says of Doctor Hodgins: "A man with learning can't lay claim to the youthful truths that he had talked about that evening sitting by the sea. So it was mine that he clung to, and Sid's"?

12. Telling Kit about her grandmother's refusal to permit Kit's adoption by Elsie Hodgins, the doctor says that Lizzy was right to say no: "She had love to give you, and love's a better guarantee of happiness than someone else's need to rescue." How does Morrissey illustrate this truth? What instances are there of a "need to rescue," and how does love of some kind contend with each? Does love always take the better of the need to rescue?

13. Why doesn't Doctor Hodgins reveal to Sid and Kit the secret of her paternity or otherwise attempt to prevent their marriage? To what degree should he be held accountable for the pain and suffering caused by their discovery the Reverend Ropson is Kit's father?

14. Having found Sid at the orphanage in St. John's, Kit has a sudden vision of "one of his cursed Gods" and a sense of "a law that not even legends could do away with." What is that law, and why can't even legends do away with it? In what ways might legends be able to eradicate other laws?

15. What does Kit mean when she says to Sid on the bench in St. John's, "I'm sayin' you're part of my law—the law that governs me. And Josie"? How would you describe that law? Why might it take precedence—or not—over every other law alluded to in the novel?

16. As they sit together on the altar steps in the church, Doctor Hodgins says to Kit, "There's more than happy, Kit. There's peace. And pride. And those things measure good." Do you agree or disagree with him, or do you think that his words are a panacea? He goes on to tell Kit, "You must feel proud, knowing you walked away from what you wanted most in the world, all for a greater thing." What do you think that "greater thing" might be? For Kit, is it worth walking away from what she wanted most?

About the Author

Donna Morrissey now lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but was born in The Beaches, a small isolated village on Newfoundland's northwest coast. She left The Beaches when she was sixteen and struck out across Canada, working odd jobs from Newfoundland to northern Alberta, and marrying. Eventually drawn back to Newfoundland, she enrolled at Memorial University in St. Johns, and—by now the mother of two children—got divorced. After graduating with a bachelor of social work degree, Morrissey moved to Halifax and—in her late thirties—began writing short stories. She has adapted two of her stories into screenplays, both of which won the Atlantic Film Festival Award. Kit's Law, Morrissey's first novel, is the winner of the Canadian Booksellers Association First-Time Author of the Year Award for 2000 and has been shortlisted for the Atlantic Fiction Award, the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and other prizes.

A Conversation with Donna Morrissey

I met this fascinating woman, a Jungian of sorts, who enraptured my mind with tales of skeleton women walking the floors of frozen oceans, and of little match girls too lazy to remove themselves from the cold of the night to escape their wintry graves. That we were of our own making and each had a unique story to tell were morals my mother had always preached. Yet despite the stories and teachings I discovered in the hundreds of books she managed to procure for me on our isolated strip of beach, it never once occurred to me to pick up pen and write. And so it came as quite a surprise when my mentor/friend asked "Can you write the way you talk? Surely, you are a writer!"

What flattery! And wouldn't my mother be proud! Every morning I arose at six, sat with the homeless in a downtown café, writing, writing, writing, until it felt like my pen had taken a life of its own. My brother became a guy called Luke, my sister became a girl called Maggie, my dog became a cat named Pirate. And I became one with them all. Thus it happened that I fell into my own myth.

I relocated to Halifax and worked seven hours a day developing writing skills. My first two short stories I converted to screenplays, and both won the Atlantic Film Festival Writing Competition. Then I started my third short story, but I was curtailed by the brilliant writings of Carl Jung, Robert Johnson, and Joseph Campbell. They changed my perspective on life and gave me a foundation upon which to write. I learned how we all live within myth, and one of the keys to good writing—and good living—is to find that myth within a character, or, ourselves, then bridge it to everyday life. And to be accepting of the directions the pen, or our lives, take. And as if to test my personal abilities to accept such trials, Divinity presented me with the most perplexing and devastating aspect of all myths. My mother, the centre of my existence, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Each day for a year we nurtured each other: me, mom, dad, my brothers, Glenn and Tommy, and my sisters, Wanda and Karen. And each day of that year, I wrote. My mother lay on a bed beside me, and the third short story, which had started out about an old woman and twenty-five cats, stretched itself into a novel about an old woman and a girl called Kit. Each day I stumbled and faltered over characters and story line, and each day my mom argued against happy endings. And sometimes when I became lost within a feeling, I'd turn to her and ask something like "Mom, remember when you used to buff the down off the birds before cooking them—how was it that you used to hold them so gently?" And I'd write her words as she spoke them into Kit's thoughts.

Finally, Kit's Law was written. And I, my mother, and my sisters, packaged up eight manuscripts and sent them out to the top publishing houses in Canada. We were courted by one of them for three months. While we waited, our mother's health began deteriorating at a frightful speed. It became more urgent for her that this book be published, and a future secured for me. Each day, she was the first to send a youngster to the mailbox, looking for the acceptance letter.

Divinity is astute, in its brilliance it turned my mother's pain for herself onto me, and mine, onto her. And in this unity, we held onto each other as living crutches as we walked the final yard of my mother's earthly journey. Sunday, at two p.m., she departed. Monday, at nine a.m., Penguin Canada called. My mother had plied the hand of God, and I was now a writer.

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