Sisters & secrets: The Ninth Hour

What I read

Alice McDermott is one of my favorite writers. I haven’t read all her work, but That Night and Charming Billy are books that have stayed with me. McDermott’s characters are finely drawn and her sense of what it is to be human is spot on.

The Ninth Hour is no exception. It’s a story of women who, while their lives might be restricted by the actions of men, are enlivened by a circle of women. Annie is young, newly married, and pregnant when her husband Jim gasses himself in their Brooklyn tenement. The Church refuses him a Catholic burial and Annie is bereft. The Little Nursing Sisters of the Poor step in. Sister St. Savior and Sister Jeanne prepare Jim’s body and sit vigil with Annie. They see to the burial in an unmarked grave. And they put Annie to work in the convent laundry with Sister Illuminata, a demanding taskmaster who comes to care for Annie in her gruff way.

Annie’s life–and, in turn, her daughter Sally’s–is as full as life can be for a poor widow and orphan in the early years of the twentieth century, and most of that can be attributed to the safe harbor the nuns provided. But as her years of mothering Sally come to an end, Annie feels drawn to the convent’s milkman Mr. Costello. She misses the companionship of a man. Sally, meanwhile, contemplates becoming a postulant and in her training begins to care for Mrs. Costello, his invalid wife, in their home. The story opens with the cover up of Jim’s suicide–and from there the secrets snowball.

The Ninth Hour is a story about the weight of secrets and how our lives often pivot on a single word left unsaid or an act concealed. Deceit can throw a shadow over an otherwise happy life–but it is for each of us to decide what good might be possible should what was hidden come into the light.

What I lived

I must admit I’m always a little shy around Catholic sisters. As a convert I don’t have the stories so many cradle Catholics revel in telling–there were no sisters rapping knuckles or throwing chalkboard erasers in my Protestant upbringing. But I also don’t have a sense of familiarity and ease around them, either. They are a bit mysterious.

Despite the fact that women religious are under the thumb of the Church’s patriarchy, the sisters I’ve met are curiously powerful women. And despite the sacrifices they make as religious, their sense of agency is solid. (One sister I knew would loudly replace “Him” with “God” in the liturgy wherever possible.) Or maybe I’m just judging sisters based on my own biases. I do take weekly yoga classes at the local Dominican Center, and, on occasion attend one program or another the sisters offer–I’ve walked the labyrinth and zoned out with Zentangle; I’ve meditated on the St. Francis sculpture path. Yesterday I took a class on the rosary. I admire the Dominican sisters’ spirituality and commitment to social justice. But it’s stories like The Ninth Hour that help me understand these strong women.

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