The Ninth Hour: A Novel: Alice McDermott, author; Euan Morton, narrator
Annie, a young Irish Catholic woman is widowed when her husband Jim commits suicide after calmly sending her out to do some shopping. His burial in the church plot that they own is in jeopardy. Sister St. Saviour, of the order Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, miraculously appears and takes charge. Although it is forbidden, she wants Jim to be buried by the church. Willing to bend the rules, she quietly arranges it by pretending his death was accidental. However, the true story gets out into the news, and her efforts fail. This is the first hint that the story will be about the “sins” of the clergy, as well as the sinful behavior that all “flesh is heir to”.
Sister St. Saviour, in spite of obstacles, does manage to use her influence to help Annie, who is pregnant and all alone in Brooklyn. She gets her a job helping Sister Illuminata in the laundry at the convent. When her daughter is born, Annie names her after the Sister who had helped her. St. Saviour never saw the child because she had recently died.
Everyday, the child who is nicknamed Sally, goes to work with her mother to the laundry in the basement of the convent. Sally is exposed to the world that Sister Illuminata occupies, a world of many petty and not so subtle complaints about her life, but also to her self sacrifice and service to those in need. As Sally is drawn more and more to the church, Sister Illuminata encourages her to enter that world. She does this against the wishes of Annie who does not want to lose Sally to the church. Sister Lucy and Sister Jeanne also become important in Sally’s life as she accompanies them on their visits to the sick and poor and witnesses the abuses that those in need suffer from, as well as the abuses that they are capable of doling out to others.
When Sally decides to enter the church as a novitiate, she travels by train to Chicago. That trip exposes her to the real world and its dangers. She is taken advantage of in many ways on the train that is carrying her to what she thought was her destiny, her calling. She grows very disillusioned as she witnesses the betrayal and dishonesty of so many, the small sins and great sins of those who prey upon her, and she decides to abandon her dream of becoming a nun. She does not want to be associated with the church any longer. The behavior that disappoints her is ignored as those who want to do anything about it are apparently powerless. People and the church are often blinded by need and greed.
When she returns home, quite unexpectedly, she is greeted by another very disappointing scene that forces her to leave home and move in with friends, the Tierney’s. Once, she and Patrick Tierney were in baby carriages side by side and he immediately fell in love with her, Sally discovers that she has her own mean streak. She realizes, too, that she has the capability to hurt others, to lie and deceive, as well. There is one constant in her life, however. She is utterly devoted to her mother, regardless of how her mother’s behavior disappoints her. Just how far would she go to save her mother’s soul? Was she worth saving and was the idea of being saved still viable?
Her mother is having an affair with Mr. Costello, a milkman, the husband of a mentally and physically disabled woman whom the nuns nurse with kindness, but, on the other hand, have no patience for when she complains. Sally has helped Sister Jeanne and Sister Lucy care for Mrs. Costello. She is recovering from pneumonia and Sally, with an ulterior motive, decides to offer to help the exhausted nuns. When Mrs. Costello dies after a violent coughing fit as she is being fed, the reader will wonder how her death came about so suddenly. Did someone offer a helping hand? Whose hand was it?
All of the characters are flawed. When presented with the possibility of breaking rules or sinning, they simply do. Their consciences rarely guide them. Even though they could be extremely kind, they also had the capacity for evil. They all seemed to harbor some hidden guilt, shame or anger from events hidden in their past that caused them pain. They often gave in to carnal desires and selfish needs. They were willing to deceive, behave promiscuously, turn a blind eye to the rules, and in general, yield to weakness. Were they suffering for “the original sin”?
As Sally’s children narrate this story, the decline of the stature of the church is gradually revealed as the duplicitous behavior of the clergy is exposed along with the poor behavior of believers and non believers alike. It is sometimes confusing. The message appears to be that humans will sink, rather than rise to the occasion, if given the opportunity to sin. Even members of the church harbor hateful and often selfish thoughts. It seems that when temptation rears its ugly head, there are men and women alike, from all walks of life that are willing to succumb to it in the same way today as it was in the time of Eve.
The story begins with a death and ends with one. Both are certainly self-serving acts on the part of someone. One, however, is a suicide and one is a murder. Both of the victims had suffered and were very unhappy in their perceived view of life. Both blamed others for their plights. Both could not adjust to their lives, but one chose to die and the other is chosen to die by others. One is trapped mentally and the other physically.
In this book, it is mostly the women who step in to help, heal and uplift, but it is also mostly the women who are willing to break the rules, manipulate others and engage in deception and disloyalty when they believe in their cause. Are all humans capable of acts of evil, great or small? Are all of us capable of breaking our vows and of being disloyal? What is the position of the church today? Is the church corrupt or is it simply that some of those attached to it are, and is the church a powerful force any longer? Should it be? Are humans capable of redemption? These are some of the questions the book will give rise to at the end.