The Ninth Hour: A Novel
Alice McDermott, winner of the National Book Award and three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, has written another unforgettable novel.
It opens in a poor Irish-American section of New York City in the early twentieth century. While his pregnant wife is out shopping her young unemployed husband rips the gas hose from his stove, lies down, and breathes deeply.
Firemen are putting out the ensuing blaze when Sister St. Savior, a Little Nursing Sister of the Sick Poor, comes upon the scene just as the horrified wife returns. Though she knows better, the nun tries to reframe the suicide as an accident from a defective pilot light so Annie, the widow, can give her husband a proper Catholic mass and burial. Sister persuades a funeral director to cooperate, but he has to renege when the next morning’s New York Times reports the death as a suicide. She knows she has sinned but is undeterred. “Hold it against the good I’ve done she prayed. We’ll sort it out when I see You.”
Sister St. Savior finds Annie a place to stay while other members of the order clean up the apartment. They give Annie a job in the convent laundry. After she gives birth they let her bring baby Sally to work.
Thus begins the beautifully constructed, layered story of two families and four generations from the Civil War to the present. The story is mostly told in the third person from the perspective of Annie, Sally, the nuns, and Annie’s best friend, Liz Tierney, whose husband is the doorman at the St. Francis Hotel. Liz already has one baby and is pregnant with another.
But there’s yet another voice. Annie and Liz’s grandchildren (we don’t know their gender or number) occasionally chime in like a Greek chorus, often with a tone of irony. They summarize chapter one: “[O]ur young grandfather, whose grave we have never found, sent his wife to do her shopping while he had himself a little nap.”
It all works. Beautifully.
McDermott’s writing is a tour de force of the senses. As Annie and Liz walk together pushing baby buggies, we ride along with Liz’s baby boy:
She [his mother] navigated the broken sidewalks, the curbs, and the street crossings with a banging determination that caused the whole contraption — high wheels and springs and the hard black body of the carriage itself — to shudder and quake, rearing at the curbs, bucking at the cobblestones, swinging left or right …. He rode every undulation, every swerve, with his spine straight, his arms outspread, and his hands fixed tightly around the gunwale of the carriage bed…. He was petrified.
She… brought the front of the carriage up in the air — he was tipped backward and the horizon became treed — and then she lifted the back wheels — tipping forward a hint of gray sidewalk aiming for his skull– as they mounted another curb.
Another carriage comes alongside, holding a baby girl dressed in white wool, “erect and terrified, like himself.”
He stared at her, she stared back with wide eyes. He said to himself, There’s the girl I’ll marry.
McDermott makes every word count in creating a character, telling the story, or illuminating a theme.
Like Sister St. Savior, other nuns have equally vivid personalities. Angry (and persistent) Sister Lucy intended to join a contemplative order but showed up at the wrong address. She decided God was leading her there so she stayed. She is not fooled by the pilot light story. “You can’t pull the wool over God’s eyes,” she warns. She’s also displeased that Mrs. Tierney has one baby and is already pregnant again. “He might think of her health instead of his pleasure,” she mutters.
Sister Jeanne is sweet, childlike, innocent, compassionate. Children adore her. Sister Illuminata, the convent laundress, likes working alone in the basement. She is determined and unsmiling, but committed to sending the nuns out each morning looking immaculate. Like the other nuns she comes to love Annie and Sally, even though they invade her space.
Sally grows up thinking she wants to be one of them.
According to McDermott The Ninth Hour refers to 3 PM, a liturgical hour of prayer in the convent and the time when Jesus was said to have died. It calls to mind a time of ultimate sacrifice. It’s also time of waiting and uncertainty. What does the future hold? Will there be a Resurrection? Several characters sacrifice for others, unsure of the ultimate outcome.
An old Civil War veteran, Red Whelan, lost an arm and leg for a rich man who paid him $300 to take his place. That same rich man later disowned his only son, Liz Tierney’s husband, who chose a beautiful Irish housemaid over his inheritance.
As with Sister St. Savior, the sacrifice may involve a choice between compassion and conflicting church teaching. She had no doubt of Heaven, but other characters are willing to take even greater risks for love.
Theological questions loom. Today most Christians consider suicide a mental illness, but these characters live in another time. The question of what if any sin is unforgivable remains today. (What about child abuse? War crimes? Adultery that destroys a family?) Can one person’s suffering atone for another’s unrepented mortal sin? Even more extreme, can one sacrifice her own soul to save another from damnation? Where does God come down on the line between judgment and mercy?
Sister Jeanne, who believed with her whole heart in God’s ultimate fairness, does not think grace applies to her. As an old woman she tells Sally’s children, “I gave up my place in heaven a long time ago…. Out of love for my friends.” She can’t repent, one supposes, because she doesn’t regret her choice.
The characters and the questions raised in The Ninth Hour will haunt the reader long after the book’s back cover is closed.
Carolyn Miller Parr is a writer, mediator, and retired judge. She co-authored In The Secret Service, The True Story of the Man Who Saved President Reagan’s Life (Tyndale, 2013). She is a member of Redbud Writer’s Guild and blogs at www.ToughConversations.net.