The Ninth Hour
, is a novel by Alice McDermott about Sister St. Saviour, an aging nun who comes to the aid of a struggling widow and her infant child after her husband commits suicide by setting fire to the tenement in Brooklyn the young Irish-Catholic family used to call home. Set in the early twentieth century and focusing on the lives of women in the convent and beyond, The Ninth Hour
is a story about how women learn to take the reigns from patronizing patriarchal leadership in order to grieve the people they love, live better lives, and find a place for themselves in the world.
As the novel opens, the only man who makes much of an appearance in the novel – Jimmy, the Irish immigrant subway worker married to Annie – makes an impulsive, seemingly uncanny decision one day to open up the gas taps in the apartment his family is living in in Brooklyn. Angry – he was recently fired by the mob bosses who run the subway system in New York, and his pregnant wife is always nagging him for more stability and a better life – suicide seems a way of proving that his life is his own.
After the fiery explosion, Annie, pregnant and alone, is lost as to what to do. Her aid through her trauma is an aging nun named Sister St. Saviour, who is a part of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. True to form, Sister St. Saviour swoops in to aid Annie and her unborn baby, manipulating the system in an attempt to get Jimmy a proper Catholic burial. Though she does fail at the last moment to secure a spot in a Catholic cemetery for Jimmy, she does help Annie get a job in the convent laundry, where she is safe among the other nuns and can raise her daughter in peace and relative comfort.
Sister St. Saviour dies just before the birth of Annie's child, whom she christens St. Saviour after the woman who did, indeed, save her life. Mostly known as Sally, Annie’s daughter becomes the main protagonist of the novel, which follows her life as she is raised among the sisters in the convent, helping her mother in the laundry, and learning about the world while helping the nuns do their work of aiding the sick and poor.
Despite taking place in a convent, the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor are less involved in a more traditional and formal religious life than they are in their duties caring for those in need. Some of the most prominent secondary characters in the book include Sister Jeanne and Sister Lucy, who are fond of Sally and her mother.
As the novel progresses, Sally learns about the world through the cloistered eyes of convent life. Eventually, old enough to choose her own path, Sally takes a train to Chicago, where she discovers, through a series of horrible smelling and noxious passengers, the details of sex. Another passenger takes her money by praying on her sympathies, and before long, Sally decides to return to the convent she calls home.
Eventually, Sally is forced to deal with the presence of sex in the world outside the convent, as well as many other traumas of interacting with the sick, poor, and dying. The novel follows Sally until her death, many decades later, making clear the role that nuns have and have always had, navigating a complicated world with stringent, old-world convictions.
Alice McDermott is a writer and professor best known for her novel Charming Billy
(1998), which won a National Book Award and an American Book Award, among other honors. She has written many other novels; The Ninth Hour
(2017) is her most recent. McDermott identifies as Catholic; she currently lives in Washington D.C. Besides her novels, she has written a number of short stories and published articles in many well-known literary magazines and newspapers.