As I began this book, I was put in mind of the PBS program, Call the Midwife, but I wasn’t long into the book before it became a much darker tale. The nuns in Midwife deal with the beginning of life, the nuns living in post World War I Brooklyn are dealing daily with death. This is not a story of nuns abusing poor women, rather it is a story of the sacrifices good, often naive and dedicated women made by choosing a vocation with a Catholic order called Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. It is a complex novel of Irish Catholic life in the years after the war, and the effects of guilt and shame which were inevitably a part of Catholic life at that time.
“The Ninth Hour” opens with the suicide of a depressed subway worker named Jim. He leaves behind a pregnant wife named Annie. A wonderful, pragmatic and savvy nun, Sr. St. Savior arrives on the scene, takes over and does her best to have Jim buried in the Church (in those days, Catholic burial was denied suicides). Though she fails in her effort to do this, she saves Annie’s life and that of the daughter Annie bore by finding her a place as a laundress in the convent. The story then becomes a bildungsroman of Sally, Annie’s daughter. It then follows her into mid-life and old age.
Sally grew into a happy, albeit, sheltered child who was fondly watched over by the kindly Sr. Illuminata, head laundress, while her mother worked. There is plenty of interesting detail about life in the convent in this section. When Sally mistakenly thinks she has the calling to become a nun, the wise Sr. Lucy who is well acquainted with life outside the convent, arranges for Sally to accompany the nursing nuns on their daily rounds, often tending to the sordid details of the sick and ill. Sally soon discovers the nursing life,attending to bodily needs, is not for her. Still unworldly, she decides to enter a novitiate of a more contemplative order. Luckily the reader is not bound for another convent because, when Sally boards a train for Chicago, she meets up with a host of interesting characters who soon divest her of her money. They are a cast worthy of a Dickens novel, especially one large, sweaty, vulgar woman who is saved from being a caricature by McDermott’s fine descriptive writing. This was only part of Sally’s maturing. She returns home to another secret which we readers already knew.
The only part of the book that didn’t work for me, was that of hearing some of Sally’s story through the eyes of her adult children. I would have preferred the story to just be told without their intrusion into the novel.
McDermott writes so well, the story holds the readers interest right to the end of the novel and Sally’s life. She manages to give us happy along with the grim. She presents a frank portrayal of convent life in a realistic manner. The nuns we meet are rounded human beings with flaws alongside their self-sacrifice. McDermott shows us the effect that the belief in the need for atonement and indulgences can have on the formation of character.
I recommend this novel to all readers. It is a well constructed and well written story of life in a Brooklyn that is long past.