The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott is a delight to read. McDermott’s writing is warm and evocative, featuring vivid, relatable characters and spaces in which one longs to linger. Brooklyn and the Catholic Church of the 1920s come alive through her novel. At the same time, McDermott uses these very real people and the situations they face to challenge the reader to think about life, death, suffering and redemption. McDermott presents us with a world that we see almost exclusively from the perspective of women — poor women and the nuns who serve in the community. This leads to some interesting reflections on justice, morality, and mortality, especially given the choices of a couple of key characters which are revealed at the end of the story.
The novel opens with a death. Jim, a 32-year-old Irish immigrant, commits suicide leaving behind his lovely young pregnant wife Annie. In the aftermath of this tragedy, the nuns of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, Congregation of Mary Before the Cross, come to the rescue. These nuns, one of the many types of orders that would have existed in the US Catholic Church back in the early 20th century, lived in poverty and devoted themselves to serving the sick and poor in their community. Sister St. Saviour happens upon the suicide scene on her way home from a day of collecting donations, and despite her fatigue and physical pain, enters the apartment to comfort the young widow. Thus begins the relationship between Annie (and later her infant daughter Sally) and the nuns. They give Annie a job in the convent laundry, where she can take her child along, and where Sally will come to know, admire and imitate the sisters. Sister Illuminata runs the laundry and tells stories of her youth (over and over). Sister Lucy can be severe; she never hesitates to stop younger women on the street and interrogate them about their marriages and insist that they come find the nuns if they need help. And Sister Jeanne is the young, cheerful but sensitive nun, good with children and about the same age as Annie. Through the narration, which is by the unnamed children of Sally much later in their lives, we know that Sister Jeanne has always been there for Annie, Sally and now them.
The theme of fairness, or rather the unfairness and injustice of life on earth, comes up frequently in the novel. While it may be a given that life is unfair, how is one supposed to react to or live with that unfairness? Sister Jeanne believes that even children inherently understand fairness, that God puts that knowledge in us before we are even born. She tells children that eventually, all suffering and loss are made right (in heaven). But for the nuns who witness poverty, abuse and despair on a daily basis, what can one actively do to combat unfairness? Sister St. Saviour bristles at the unfairness not just of life, but of the church itself. She tries to hide the fact that Jim committed suicide so that he can have a Christian burial (suicide is a “mortal sin,” meaning that it cuts the sinner off from God and heaven, and thus puts the sinner outside the Church), and she recalls some of her other “sins of deception” (hating certain politicians, giving money on the side to those she personally finds deserving, burying a fetus).
She wanted him buried in Calvary because the power of the Church wanted him kept out and she, who spent her whole life in the Church’s service, wanted him in.
While the other nuns might not actively buck the authority of the church in the name of fairness, they do demonstrate compassion and tolerance toward those who sin and who suffer. Sister Lucy’s admonitions to young married women come from the understanding that many women are mistreated at home. In one striking passage, Sister Lucy enters a house where two young girls have been abused by a family member; her rage is palpable but impotent. She can berate the abuser, who simply smiles at her, and she can tell the local priest, but she knows nothing will change. Sister Illuminata, who craves the love and attention of Sally, recalls an episode from her time at a sanatorium when she chanced upon two other patients having sex. Rather than be scandalized by the adultery (another mortal sin), she understands that humans have a hunger to be comforted.
Another theme that pervades the novel is related to death and one’s attitude toward it. The characters of this story are Catholic, and so there is a belief in heaven and hell. By living a good life and following the rules, one can hope to gain eternal life in heaven. Conversely, if one breaks the rules, especially through commission of mortal sin and NOT seeking forgiveness, one faces damnation. Sister Jeanne is certain that Jim, because he committed suicide, has cut himself off from heaven.
His death was a whim of its own. His own choice. Who, in all fairness, could demand its restitution? The promise of Redemption, the promise of everlasting life, of order restored in heaven, could hold no water … if it could not also be revoked by such willfulness, such arrogance.
While Annie doesn’t seem to reflect on the state of Jim’s soul, she accepts that rules are rules and he cannot receive Christian burial. Annie and her friend Liz Tierney on the whole are less concerned with death than with finding joy in life. Liz loves the church and the nuns, but finds holiness boring. Her delight is in her family with all its boisterous chaos, and she and her family welcome Annie and Sally as part of all that.
At the center of this story though is Sally and where she fits in with the matters of fairness/justice and matters of mortality/sinfulness. We know from early in the story that she marries one of the Tierneys and has children despite her earlier desire for a vocation as a nun. In her youth, Sally has to confront her conflicted feelings about the dark and sinful world around her. It’s difficult to discuss Sally without revealing crucial plot points, but her views on sin, mortality and justice will be critical to the plot.
This would be an excellent choice for a book group. I would love to discuss the ending with someone! In addition to the topics mentioned above, others such as women and self-sacrifice, power within the church, attitudes toward depression and mental health issues would be worth pursuing. Catholics might take an especial interest in the novel. McDermott often writes about the Catholic Church and does so in a way that is both loving and provocative.