Likely Stories: The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

Sep 27, 2018

A widow with an infant works at a convent laundry to pay her way.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Alice McDermott has won the National Book Award, as well as a finalist for numerous other prizes.  She teaches at Johns Hopkins University.  The Ninth Hour is her eighth novel.  To quote the dust jacket, “On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens the gas tap in his Brooklyn tenement.  His suicide has repercussions among the neighbors, and his widow, Annie, and the unborn child.

A nun appears ready to help the unfortunate widow.  These nuns take over a good bit of the work to overcome the result of the suicide.  McDermott writes, “In her thirty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular and poor women in general.  Her own little Tammany, Sister Miriam called it. // She could get this woman’s husband buried in Calvary.  If it was all done quickly enough, she could manage it” (15).

The nuns clean, scrub, and even paint the apartment to rid it of the memories of Jim, the widow’s husband.  The nuns hire her to do the laundry for the convent, and even allow her to bring her newborn to the laundry while she works.  The nuns avoid talking about the incident, but outside the convent, there is enough chatter to alert the church about the suicide.  Alice writes, “She could tell herself that the illusion was purposeful: God showing her an image of the young man, the suicide, trapped in his bitter purgatory, but she refused the notion.  It was superstitious.  It was without mercy.  It was the devil himself who drew her eyes into that tangle, who tempted her toward despair.  That was the truth of it” (19).  The sisters cut corners, wheedled and cajoled to keep their charitable endeavors flowing so important to many of the parishioners. 

Sister Jeanne prays.  “She wanted him buried in Calvary to give comfort to his poor wife, true.  To get the girl what she’d paid for.  But she also wanted to prove herself something more than a beggar, to test the connections she’d forged in this neighborhood, forged over a life time.  She wanted him buried in Calvary because the power of the Church wanted him kept out and she, who had spent her life in the Church’s service, wanted him in. // Hold it against the good I’ve done, she prayed.  We’ll sort it out when I see You” (30).

The child was born and grew up among the sisters.  The nuns believed the child, Sallie, was destined for a life in the convent.  McDermott writes, “It was Sister Jeanne who suggested Annie give her baby the nun’s name in baptism.  A formidable patroness for the child” (130).  They spoke to Annie about the miraculous occurrences when the old nun died.  Alice continues, “Annie didn’t doubt the report.  Sister Jeanne couldn’t tell a lie.  But Annie was inclined to reconcile such miracles with the sensible world.  Sister St. Savior died in July.  The windows were surely open—or, if they weren’t, Sister Jeanne, who held onto the old superstitions, would have opened one the moment the old nun passed.  Surely roses bloomed somewhere in the neighborhood” (130).

Alice McDermott’s latest novel, The Ninth Hour, is a sweet and loving story of a band of nuns who try and make life a little bit better for the poor of Brooklyn.  5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!