The first time I saw Sister Mary Kathleen without her veil and starched cowl, my thoughts sacrilegiously went to her weight, no longer hidden behind her flowing robes. Nuns were my second mothers from first grade through high school from Sister Anita in second grade who hid me in the coat closet to read the upper level books while my classmates struggled through beginning readers, to Sister Marie Gabriel, who inspired all girls in her Latin class to don the habit to look like her – rumor had it she was once a Rockette. Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour has nuns living through the early twentieth century, but Sisters Jeanne and Lucy had many of the same blithe goodness and no nonsense attitudes of the nuns I remember.
McDermott frames her story around a young girl, Sally, from before her birth to after her death. The book opens with Sally’s father, Jim, committing suicide, an act with consequences throughout the story for unborn Sally, her pregnant mother Annie, and their interactions with the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor who come to their rescue. The nuns give Annie a job in their laundry, where Sally plays as an infant and later entertains the nuns with her antics.
Sally spends all her free time with the nuns, and eventually, as many good Catholics girls do, she entertains the idea of becoming one of them. Her shadowing of Sister Lucy ministering to the needy families, elderly shut-ins, disabled invalids, and sickly poor quickly removes her aspirations to be a nurse. Changing sheets, diapers, and bedpans does not appeal to her.
Thinking she might still have the calling to be a nun, Sally takes the train to the motherhouse in Chicago. Having been sheltered from the real world, Sally quickly discovers she does not have the patience or the virtue to deal with the low life she encounters on the ride. Unlike the saintly nuns she admires, Sally realizes she is more likely to punch someone than meekly hand over her money. When she arrives in Chicago, she immediately takes the returning train home to New York.
Ignorant of her mother’s new love affair with the milkman who is married to an invalid, Sally finds the bed she shared with her mother now taken when she returns. Mrs. Tierney, a friend of her mother’s, offers her a room in her family’s big house, and Mr. Tierney finds her a job at his hotel’s tea room.
The story bounces around in time frames, teasing with information (Patrick, Sally’s future husband, is one of Mrs. Teirney’s sons), and flows back and forth through the years. Most of the story is told in flashback with Sally now dead and Patrick in assisted living. Although the narrator seems to be one or more of their grandchildren, McDermott achieves the effect of reminiscing about the old days, with jumps to narration by the principals in real time.
The one constant vein throughout is the presence of the good nuns. Each nun in the story follows a familiar stereotype but with an underlying note of human weakness: the take charge Sister Lucy who orders the emptying of chamber pots and deftly bandages sore limbs but uses her influence to punish a bully; the rulebreaker Sister St. Saviour who rescues the widow and child but who would defy church doctrine by burying a suicide in the church’s consecrated plot; the hard working Sister Illuminata who labors in the damp basement never complaining about her arthritic knees but dances through her ironing; and Sister Jeanne, who finds good everywhere but facilitates the final murder in the story. They are distinct individuals and despite their vision-blocking headgear, they see everything and know more about what’s happening around them than they let you know.
Like most stories with Irish characters at the core, death in The Ninth Hour is prominent, along with misery and despair. Nevertheless, the love stories – about Sally and Patrick, about the nuns for those in their care, about Red Whelan who takes Patrick’s grandfather’s place in the Civil War – all conspire to create an uplifting message and remind the reader of a time when self-sacrifice meant more than self-serving.