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Biography & Autobiography Literary


A memoir of a Newfoundland childhood and the raucous, terrible, amazing journey to becoming a novelist

by (author) Donna Morrissey

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Sep 2021
Literary, Personal Memoirs, Women
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2021
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A deeply personal account of love's restorative ability as it leads renowned novelist Donna Morrissey through mental illness, family death, and despair to becoming a writer--told with charm and inimitable humour.

When Donna Morrissey left the only home she had ever known, an isolated Newfoundland settlement, at age 16, she was ready for adventure. She had grown up without television or telephones but had absorbed the tragic stories and comic yarns of her close-knit family and community. The death of her infant brother marked the family, and years later, Morrissey suffers devastating guilt about the accidental death of her teenage brother, whom she'd enticed to join her in the oilfields. Her misery was compounded by her own misdiagnosis of a terminal illness, all of which contributed to crippling anxiety and an actual diagnosis of PTSD. Many of those events and themes would eventually be transformed and recast as fictional gold in Morrissey's novels.

In another writer's hands, Morrissey's account of her personal story could easily be a tragedy. Instead, she combines darkness and light, levity and sadness into her tale, as her indomitable spirit and humour sustain her. Morrissey's path takes her from the drudgery of being a grocery clerk (who occasionally enlivens her shift with recreational drugs) to western oilfields, to marriage and divorce and working in a fish-processing plant to support herself and her two young children. Throughout her struggles, she nourishes a love of learning and language.

Morrissey layers her account of her life with stories of those who came before her, a breed rarely seen in the modern world. It centers around iron-willed women: mothers and daughters, wives, sisters, teachers and mentors who find the support, the wind for their wings, outside the bounds given to them by nature. And it is a mysterious older woman she meets in Halifax who eventually unleashes the writer that Morrissey is destined to become.

An inspiring and insightful memoir, Pluck illustrates that even when you find yourself unravelling, you can find a way to spin the yarns that will save you--and delight readers everywhere.

About the author

Donna Morrissey was born in The Beaches, a small village on the northwest coast of Newfoundland that had neither roads nor electricity until the 1960s a place not unlike Haire’s Hollow, which she depicts in Kit’s Law. When she was sixteen, Morrissey left The Beaches and struck out across Canada, working odd jobs from bartending to cooking in oil rig camps to processing fish in fish plants. She went on to earn a degree in social work at Memorial University in St. Johns. It was not until she was in her late thirties that Morrissey began writing short stories, at the urging of a friend, a Jungian analyst, who insisted she was a writer. Eventually she adapted her first two stories into screenplays, which both went on to win the Atlantic Film Festival Award; one aired recently on CBC. Kit’s Law is Morrissey’s first novel, the winner of the Canadian Booksellers Association First-Time Author of the Year Award and shortlisted for many prizes, including the Atlantic Fiction Award and the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Morrissey lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Donna Morrissey's profile page


  • Short-listed, Evelyn Richardson Non-fiction Award

Excerpt: Pluck: A memoir of a Newfoundland childhood and the raucous, terrible, amazing journey to becoming a novelist (by (author) Donna Morrissey)


If you were a bird flying over the most easterly fringe of Canada you’d see a great island broiling out of the Atlantic, its granite shores rollicking with fishing boats and flakes and fishermen. A sweep of coloured houses face the wind, smoke whirling from their chimneys, youngsters scrabbling after sheep and hens and grandmothers scrabbling after youngsters, hiding now within swaths of sheets billowing around them from the clotheslines.

Swoop inland and you’d see the quilted greens and browns of its forests, sequined with ponds and rioting rivers and waterfalls. Should you glide up the forty-mile inlet of White Bay on the northwest side of the island, with its steep wooded hills shouldering the sky, you might hover over a strip of beach with two tiny outports at either end. They’re a five-minute walk apart and about ten houses each, separated by a point of land jutting into the sea. Upper Beaches and Lower Beaches. That’s where I was born on January 13, 1956. Upper Beaches. Or, to those on the Lower Beaches, up on the point. Likewise, we referred to them as down below.

Not much came to us before the late sixties. Televisions, telephones, cars, roads, none of that. Most visitors were fogbound fishers, the odd aunt or uncle, the occasional young man or woman coming ashore to go courting. Yet lots came to us in different ways: songs, dances, jannying. Yarns spun on the spot and growing with each teller of the tale. No doubt things have opened up since I was a girl. Still, such an environment, culture, and circumstance spawned a uniqueness of character that resides in most of us who grew up there. I never tire of talking about it.

It was during an adult education course, after I’d graduated university in my thirty-eighth year, that I started writing. I’d met an older woman named Elly who enraptured my mind with stories of skeleton women trapped in bad marriages who ended up walking the floors of frozen oceans, trying to get out; stories of how we see ourselves not as swans but as ugly ducklings, of how we eat the poison apple of sleep rather than invite spiritual awakening. It was in the midst of one of those tales when she turned to me and said, “You’re dragging your own bag of bones, dear. Go find your voice and write your own myth.”

I bought an alarm clock. Every morning I got up at six, and before going to work I’d sit with the homeless in a downtown café, writing, writing, writing. I wrote about the pigeons hobbling around on the icy sidewalk beneath my window, the sun rising over the southern hillside, the peonies in my grandmother’s garden, the irks and ills of my siblings, of my mother, my father, my grandparents, until my pen took on a life of its own and my father became a boy called Luke, my mother a girl called Claire, my brother Glenn a cat called Pirate. I myself would carry many names

.I write words spoken by my mother. I write words spoken by aunts and uncles. I write about what I’ve seen, heard, and, well, made up. Thus far it has fed into six novels situated in Newfoundland culture, some of those novels undergoing up to seven translations. When I asked my Japanese editor why her publisher had been attracted to Kit’s Law, the story of a girl growing up in a rural Newfoundland outport, she answered, “It is a story of faith, the elderly, and family love. It is what our Japanese culture was built upon, and we struggle now to keep it.”

It matters not our differences, then, because we all eat from the one basket of life with its fruits of joy, kindness, goodness, and patience. We all speak the universal language of love, laughter, fear, and grief evoked by this tremendous and terrible journey through life. And of the fruits in the basket it’s joy I covet the most, as it allows me to see the beauty in a frost-etched window and hear the singing of broken glass being swept by my mother’s broom. And joy is fed by love. It’s fed by gratification and blessedness and it is the seventh heaven. It was the memory of joy that kept me going during my trials of physical and spiritual impoverishment. It was the memory of joy that sustained me through the dark hole I fell into during my forties, joy that held me throughout the hellish battle for sanity in a world suddenly turned on its head. And yet it was during those moments when joy was blanketed by fear, grief, contempt, guilt, shame, and so many other ills that I was kicked, bruised and hurting, into consciousness—which is, I believe, where God lives.

For our truly conscious moments happen when something—big or small—awakens us to a deeper way of seeing things, dredging us up from innocence into awareness. Looking back, I see those moments (some of them lasting for days, months, perhaps years) as lampposts pinpointing my journey through the dark corridors of my past. This memoir follows a trajectory through some of the more significant of these, leading up to the death of my mother and the publication of my first novel, one that her courage helped me create during her final days. For each moment recounted here there are thousands more not written. And whenever my personal story becomes lost in my mother’s story, it is because she carried me in hers.



It came without being beckoned. It came within a flash. It touched cold against my skin, and before I could grasp what it was it seeded itself inside the moist dark marrow of my bones.

I was eight. It was warm and sunny, the ocean lapping along the shore. I was heading for home, proud of the six-foot slab I’d just pulled from the sea for firewood. It was smelly and water-sogged heavy. When I reached the first house, Aunt Rose’s place, she was leaning on her fence, staring down the road. Something was wrong. My aunts were hovering on the road in front of my house. The aunts never hovered in a huddle on the road. They were always inside, doing things. They came out only when a youngster cried too hard or they needed a bit of kindling from the porch to flame a fire. They’d scoot to another’s house for a cup of tea or to borrow a bit of pork fat or butter. They’d team up with buckets and rags and clean the school or Aunt Rene’s or Grandmother’s house if those women were feeling too poorly to do it themselves. They never huddled and hovered in a group on the road.

Aunt Rose lifted the latch of her gate and stepped outside. She hadn’t been outside her gate in sixty years. She caught sight of me and her wrinkly mouth trembled. “Your little brother is dead, my love, your little brother is dead. Sin, sin, just startin’ to walk and now he’s dead.”

I didn’t know what dead was. I’d seen a chicken in Grandmother’s henhouse once that was stiff and dirty and cold to the touch, and Grandmother had said it was dead. But Baby Paul wasn’t a chicken. And he was in hospital because he had a cough. I didn’t know what hospital was, either.

My father bounded out of our house and jumped into his truck, firing up the engine. I dropped the slab. My mother came running too, her sweater half on, Aunt Beat holding the truck door open for her. My mother was barely inside before it jolted forward. I held out my arms, running. The brakes squealed as Dad rolled down his window, his voice catching on a wet cough as he yelled, “Go home, go on home now.”

They roared off in a flurry of dust from the dry gravel road, the aunts wringing their hands and staring after them. Aunt Marg whimpered, “My, oh my, she got to go through this agin, now.”

I looked at Aunt Marg. I didn’t understand her words but I felt something bad in them. My sister Wanda was beside me now, and her hand found mine. Our brother Ford was struggling in Aunt Beat’s arms, flailing his little fists after the truck, crying Baby Ball, Baby Ball. It always made everyone laugh when he said Baby Ball for Baby Paul. No one was laughing in that moment.

Aunt Beat ushered us inside our house and made us molassey bread and put us to bed when it got dark. Mom and Dad still weren’t home. Come morning the aunts were drifting and whispering through the house like a searching wind. Grandmother gave me and Wanda and Ford big warm hugs and helped us dress and fed us hot oatmeal sweetened with dates and bade us to be quiet. The aunts had told us Paul was dead but not what dead was and when Wanda asked they said, “The angels took him, my love, the angels took him away, he’s an angel too now.”

Their voices were sad. It didn’t fit with the pretty smiling angels in our mother’s Bible.

Mother came downstairs. She was wearing a black dress. She sat quietly in her rocking chair and this time she didn’t mind that Wanda and I stood on the rockers on either side of her. Her sadness was deeper than the aunts’ and I knew not to ask her what dead was. I only knew it was wrong.

There was a soft knock on the back door. Mother took hold of our hands. She held them tight as the door opened and one of our uncles entered. He was carrying an oblong white box at his side and it had a thick white strap that was looped around his shoulder. My mother dropped my and Wanda’s hands and raised hers to her face and started crying.

Our uncle walked past us; the aunts stood back with bowed heads. The only sounds were their sniffles. My mother rose. Wanda and I stepped off the rockers and held hands. Mother followed our uncle into the living room where no one ever went and whose door was always closed. It was always cool in there, even in the summertime. It was much cooler this morning with the curtains drawn. I was surprised to see Father lying on the sofa that was never used. His face was burrowed into the cushions and I thought he was sleeping. It felt wrong; he never slept in this room. His shoulders were heaving and he was making little whimpers as though he were fretting inside his dreams.

Our uncle laid the white box atop a table and slowly removed its cover. There was a smell I didn’t know, but I thought of soap. I stretched up on my toes to see inside. Baby Paul lay there. His face was still, so very, very still. So still it struck away all memory of him ever having puckered and laughed. His little lips looked blue and frozen. My mother sobbed harder. She touched her hand to his forehead and held it there. Aunt Claire’s face broke into crinkles as she started to sob and I thought she was mocking my mother, so I kicked her leg. She bent down and smothered her face against my shoulder, then led Wanda and me to the door.

I didn’t want to go. I kept looking behind me, seeing my father still lying on the sofa with his back to everyone, his face deeply buried in the cushions. Aunt Claire took us to her house and fed us canned peaches in little orange glass bowls. Bedtime, she took us back home and the other aunts were still there and Mother sat in her rocker, her face in her hands, and Father was gone.

The aunts washed us, dressed us in our pyjamas, and walked us quickly through the living room where Baby Paul still lay in the white box. The smell of soap was strong. They hurried us upstairs and put us to bed. Mother came and kissed us and tucked us in. I was afraid to put my arms around her neck, as I always did, and squeeze her tight. Everything was wrong.

I woke up before Wanda. I listened for the kitchen sounds that greeted every morning like birdsong. I heard silence. It spoke a language I didn’t know. I got out of bed and peeked into Mother’s room, but neither she nor Father was there. I crept down the stairs and into the living room. The white box was on the table, the cover was off. Baby Paul was still and silent as stone. The little bump of his nose was the only curve on his tiny white face. I crept closer. The smell of soap from yesterday became stronger. I lifted my hand as my mother had done. I touched it to his forehead and leapt back with a cry of fright. His skin was cold, as cold as sea ice. I knew then what death was. It was that stillness inside Baby Paul. And it was cold. Death killed Baby Paul. Just like it done Grandmother’s chicken.

Perhaps, if not for that sudden realization that Baby Paul would never leave this box and crawl about the floor again, or gurgle spit down his chin and flail his arms and wet his diapers, and perhaps if the door hadn’t opened at that moment and my grandmother hadn’t come swooping through, taking my hand and leading me to the kitchen for a little rocking and some bread and tea, perhaps I might’ve felt it when that sliver of fear entered me. Perhaps I would have spoken of it to my mother. As it was, I quickly lost myself inside Grandmother’s chatter and that of my aunts milling about, making oatmeal for everybody and frying bacon. And those times throughout the day when I was alone and thought back to that flash of knowing with Baby Paul, and that touch of fright that had accompanied it, I stole away from it, tucked it away like a horrid secret, as though I were the only one who knew that death killed Baby Paul.

Editorial Reviews

One of:
Winnipeg Free Press's Best Books of 2021
CBC's "57 works of Canadian nonfiction coming out in fall 2021 [that] we can't wait to read"
“Remarkable. . . . [Pluck] is that rare book that pulls the curtain back on working life, illuminating both its stresses and sorrows and its unexpected joys.”
—The Globe and Mail

“I have heard many tell and sing about the challenges and blessings of the hard and happy times in outport Newfoundland, but never have I felt such a connection to it in story or song as in Donna Morrissey’s Pluck. I feel like I have walked the hills with her in an extraordinary childhood filled with death and dancing, where nothing was so fearsome or fascinating as ‘away’. This is a song of a story and I would love an encore.”
—Alan Doyle, musician, actor and bestselling author of All Together Now
“The ups and downs of Donna Morrissey’s life would be enough to give anyone the bends. Pluck is a terrific read, a tale that will make you laugh and cry. Take the plunge.”
Mark Critch, bestselling author of An Embarrassment of Critch’s and Son of a Critch
"In Pluck, Donna Morrissey turns her award-winning storytelling skills to a compelling, compassionate and often humorous account of growing up with her big, turbulent, loving family in outport Newfoundland. This deeply moving memoir is the story of a writer finding her way and her voice. But more so, it's a powerful reflection on the experiences of tragedy and redemption, and the inextricably linked states of loss and love."
—Pauline Dakin, bestselling author of Run, Hide, Repeat

"Every word of Donna Morrisey’s memoir, Pluck, is a gem. . . . From its first page you become enamoured of the people who raised, supported, pushed, cajoled or loved this author into becoming one of Canada’s best literary voices. . . . If turning the pain of life into beauty is an artist’s purpose, then this book is a masterpiece. . . . It is a memoir that reads like a novel, with a twist that will leave you gasping. . . . Unequivocally, a must-read, masterful, page-turner of a tale."
—The Miramichi Reader

"Imagination, fortitude, pluck and metamorphosis are some of the themes of this . . . engaging account of the author’s ties to Newfoundland and her family in the context of her development as a writer."
—The Winnipeg Free Press

“Donna Morrissey [has] known and lived tragedies many of us only hear about. . . . [yet[ she writes about all of these things with such beauty. . . . There’s darkness, and she doesn’t shy away from it. It’s real. It’s raw. And it’s beautiful.
—Edwards Book Club Reviews
Pluck is happy and sad and all that comes in between. But above all else, it is a great read.”
—Waterloo Region Record

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