Alice McDermott’s new novel, The Ninth Hour, begins with a suicide and a failed cover-up, setting off a series of events tinged with moral dilemmas that cascade for decades.
Fired from his job as a train man for the BRT and with a pregnant wife, Jim, an Irish immigrant, commits suicide in the apartment he shares with Annie. An elderly nun, Sister Saint Saviour of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, takes pity on Annie. The crafty nun makes a foiled attempt to cover up the suicide, wanting to give Jim a Christian burial.
The scene highlights the conflict between the Catholic Church’s rules and the compassion Sister St. Saviour feels for the fallen man and his poor widow. It’s a theme McDermott returns to throughout the story.
The nuns give Annie a job in the basement laundry room of the convent, where they practically raise her daughter, Sally. Annie befriends Michael and Liz Tierney, and their families become close over the years, their stories intertwining with hers.
Set in early 20th Century Brooklyn, The Ninth Hour portrays the nuns not as overly virtuous or inhumanly harsh caricatures, but as three dimensional sober-eyed champions of the downtrodden: cleaning bedpans and soiled clothing, ministering to invalids and poor people, and giving comfort to people without hope. Their morality is guided not by the priests, who rarely appear in the story, but by their own sense of what is right and fair.
The nuns are richly drawn characters. Sister Jeanne, a young nun who takes Sally under her wing, “believed with the conviction of an eyewitness that all human loss would be restored: the grieving child would have her mother again; the dead infant would find robust health; suffering, sorrow, accident and loss would all be amended in heaven. She believes this because…fairness demanded it.”
Sister Illuminati runs the basement laundry room with energetic efficiency. Here, McDermott’s fine eye for detail is on display as she writes of Sister Illuminati’s assortment of laundry ingredients: “the store bought Borax and Ivory and bluing agents, but the potions she mixed herself: bran water to stiffen curtains and wimples, alum water to make muslin curtains and nightwear fire resistant, brewed coffee to darken the sisters’ stockings and black tunics, Fels-Naptha water for general washing, Javelle water (washing soda, chloride of lime, boiling water) for restoring limp fabric.”
There is the no-nonsense Sister Lucy, who is described as having “a small tight knot of fury at the center of her chest.”
Each of the nuns makes compromises in the name of love and mercy. Sister Saint Saviour, when she reflects on her attempt to obtain a Christian burial for a man who committed suicide, prays to God, “Hold it against the good I’ve done, she prayed. We’ll sort it out when I see You.”
On the cusp of adulthood, Sally believes she has a vocation for the convent. However, during a train ride to a Chicago convent where she will prepare for her orders, Sally is revolted by the cruelty and squalor she experiences. She quickly decides not to become a nun.
What she desires more than anything is to find happiness for her mother, who spends her afternoons with Mr. Costello, a milkman, but cannot marry him because he is married to a bedridden, invalid woman. Sally witnesses Mrs. Costello’s cruelty and contempt for the nuns who care for her each day while Mr. Costello is on his milk route, and she wishes life were more fair.
Eventually, Sally marries childhood friend Patrick Tierney. Later we learn from their children that she has plunged into clinical depression in midlife.
McDermott chooses as her narrator Jim and Annie’s grandchildren, which gives the story a panoramic scope and the perspective of the passage of time. Interwoven are vignettes about the family’s history and the sacrifices made and sins committed in the name of love.
There are many lessons to draw from this novel. The one that resonates most for me is that we are all imperfect, but we must strive to do what is right. As Mrs. Tierney, Sally’s mother-in-law puts it, “God’s not going to hold it against you if you’re something less than a blessed saint. Aren’t we all human? Aren’t we all doing the best we can?”