Alice McDermott is a beautiful writer. That sounds cheesy, I know. But The Ninth Hour had the exact same effect on me as Charming Billy: I could not put it down. Yet it’s not a thriller, it’s not melodramatic, and it’s not a skim-get-to-the-end-quickly type of book. Rather, her understated, poetic approach to detail pulls the reader so far into the story and its characters that we feel like we’re in the room—in this case, in the basement laundry room of the convent or the apartment after the fire, or the bedroom with Mrs. Costello complaining while the nuns change her bedding and empty her chamber pot.
This is the story of Annie, a young Irish immigrant in early 20th c Brooklyn, whose husband just killed himself because he couldn’t face unemployment with a child on the way. But really it’s a story of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor who took her in and helped raise her daughter. It’s a story of grace and humility and what it means to be human–to serve others, to love, to sacrifice, and to forgive. The Little Nursing Sisters function as today’s home health care, hospice, Molly Maids, meals on wheels, and social workers all in one. Smart, prudent, practical women dedicating their lives to the poor. It’s no wonder we struggle to pay for these services today; they were once free in so many cities with Catholic convents.
In describing the dreary February day of the suicide, McDermott, writes from Sister St. Saviour’s point of view (after she’s been out begging—part of the job in addition to the myriad of home services): “we’re all feeling it. the weight of the low sky and the listless rain and the damp depths of this endless winter, the sour smell of the vestibule, the brimstone breath of the subway, of the copper coins, the cold that slips behind your spine and hollows you out to the core” (13). How well that captures New York in February from someone who’s been out on the street for six and a half hours. And then, Sister goes inside to help Annie vacate the apartment. Because that’s what the Sisters did: one foot in front of the other. Day after day for their whole lives. The rest of us have much to learn from their compassion and commitment.