The Ninth Hour, McDermott — micro review

Last year I read a murder mystery called “The 9th Hour,” and was puzzled when I kept hearing praise for it. Well, the praise was intended for Alice McDermott’s book, “The Ninth Hour.” My mother-in-law recently lent me this novel, McDermott’s eighth, and it is indeed praiseworthy.

Maybe not the best book to read while helping a gravely ill sibling with her toileting, but not at all worthy of Finn’s unenthused response, above. It takes place in the Irish Catholic world of Brooklyn in the early part of the last century (which happens to be where and when both my parents’ lives began). It’s about love, survival, the judgment of religion, and caregiving.

The stellar contribution the nuns made to the community stood at odds with their notions of damnation, notions that I grew up with and found weird even as a child. Why, for instance, are people who commit suicide precluded from grace?

At the age of eight, even if I didn’t know why, I was suspicious of the story about a woman who was anointed a saint after being raped in a cornfield. Really? And didn’t Father Chamberlain have a lot of nerve hollering at a church full of second graders that we were all “on the road to hell”? Seriously, he was a prick. I wouldn’t have used that word then, but I most emphatically do now.

Of course, none of this stopped me from wanting to be a nun back then (though to be honest, I think that had more to do with my pretty, gilt-edged missal and crystal rosary beads than anything else). All of this has fallen away but I still say my Hail Mary’s leaving and landing on the tarmac in a jet.

The daughter of our main character is practically raised by the nuns when her widowed mother goes to work as a laundress in a nearby convent. So it comes as no surprise when she thinks that she should follow the religious path. However, things are not so straightforward.

Much of the story explores her coming of age between two bookends — the surprising adaptations her mother made to widowhood and the ordered life of the sisters.

The nuns’ brisk and efficient approach to shit-stained linens and invalids is to be admired. Burdened by the dirty sheets of my sister that week, I actually read a few of these scenes wistfully. If only…

One take away from the novel is that while many social agencies have stepped into the void left by the withdrawal of the nuns’ services, no one has really taken their place.

This is disjointed and for that, I apologize. But here is a very good review in The Guardian: McDermott’s The Ninth Hour: the heartlessness and consolation of Catholicism.

19 thoughts on “The Ninth Hour, McDermott — micro review

      1. Mo Crow

        About a week later after getting in trouble for something or other I realized trying to be a saint was going to be harder than I first thought and abandoned that ambition! I don’t believe in God or marriage but do believe in the power of Love!

        1. deemallon

          believing in the power of love gives you a kind of shining faith that I can only aspire to!

  1. Ginny

    Funny the nuns we had in early grade school were very sweet and of the singing variety. We learned The Beach Boys Sloop John B along with communion tunes. I bought the package until I was told Jesus hates children without dental notes. Just like that, my parents tardiness in getting all of us to the dds was a skip down on the pathway to hell. Devils always chased us after that. But the nuns stayed in high favor with their guitars and Dominique lyrics and cool headgear.

    I still buy the devil more than the dogma. Lol. In 5th grade I decided I’d much prefer to be a Jew. That didn’t work out so well either. “….Drinking all night
    Got into a fight
    Well I feel so broke up
    I want to go home

    1. deemallon

      Love this comment. I feel fortunate not to have attended Catholic school but your nuns don’t sound so bad. Funny that damnation might turn on plaque!

      1. RainSluice

        LOL you two! and reading everyone’s comments here, as always, is so enlightening for me. Only recently have I begun to observe how Catholicism meets education. I may have said before I teach at an all boys Catholic School. I am not Catholic. There are nuns who visit us from time to time and sprinkle their magic spirit dust around the building (they speak words of wisdom and appreciation for what we do) and that spirit dust seeps into me like watching a really good film. I watch from my own weird psychological distance. I have a problem with the whole concept of the sacrifice nuns choose to make. Though there are times when I wished I had a convent filled with pure silence: a soft safe haven from life among men (before I knew it wasn’t really). On a one of my bike trips I visited a couple of convents from the middle ages in France. Had I lived in those times, I’d have spent it as a prisoner peering out from a hole under ground, sleeping and weeping on my cell’s stone slab. Religion itself remains a weird weird world to me. I must say I love the community of educators I work with… a strong and caring bunch, always questioning, always growing, all with great respect for the power of prayer – we have a “pick your own way” to pray. My way is mindful breathing and most of the time it is enough to help me through each day with many little boys, often with joy, always with hope.

        1. deemallon

          I went to a Jesuit law school and I will say that for all its gross and malevolent problems, the Catholic Church has always had a strong intellectual tradition and a commitment to social justice way beyond the average evangelical. I think I forgot that the school you’re working in was Catholic. I happen to know from focusing on the middle ages in college, that being a nun was one of the few paths available to women who wished to be somewhat independent and lead a life of the mind.

    2. deemallon

      who’d have thunk? dental care and the devil doing a dance? In fourth grade when we moved yet again, the charade of being Catholic was dropped. Irrevocably. By then my father was an atheist who found solace in nature and my mother put stock in the force of creativity. I begged my mother to take me to the Unitarian Church when I was 12, which she dutifully did for a while.

  2. ravenandsparrow

    I grew up in this far corner of the country where there were plenty of Catholics but not too many Catholic schools so all of my exposure to nuns has been as an adult. Our parish was ruled strictly for years by a priest who loved to scare us with threats of damnation. (Yep, a prick.) I can remember sitting in the kaleidoscope of colors that the sun made shining through the stained glass windows hearing him pronounce that only Catholics could go to heaven. “What about Hindus?” was my internal response, thinking it very cruel of a supposedly loving god to consign whole continents of people to hell just because they weren’t born Catholics, sanctimonious missionaries notwithstanding.
    My sister-in-law tells a very heartwarming story of loving treatment by the nuns in her Catholic school when she was a second-grader, after the death of her mother. (She and her sister actually stayed with them for two weeks while her father dealt with all the medical and funerary needs of the situation.) The nuns I know are down-to-earth and deeply kind. They are totally capable of dispensing whatever help is needed without shrinking or shirking. Some people tell horror stories about nuns, but I only have experience with stalwart devotees of love in action and prayer.

    1. deemallon

      Yeah the whole Catholics only thing has always been mystifying. So unchristian a view. My entire exposure was catechism. So this comment and the novel were revelatory about the service. Love in action.

  3. Joanne

    My only remembrance of a nun was Sister Angela the head of the local Catholic school. I’ve often said–now that she is retired and gone– “Where’s Sister Angela when we need her?” The library where I worked (next door to the church) was often “making the call” after school and she would sweep in (dressed in black) and give the boys or girls the “look” and cart them back to church with her.

  4. Michelle Slater

    Not the least disjointed to my reading…you really are a very engaging story teller, even when the story is hard to tell. I am intrigued and read the wonderful Guardian link and will read her when I take up reading again.. We have a great deal in common you and me. I wanted to be a nun when one was kind to me and let me in to see the convent. It was so clean and smelled good too. I think that was part of my desire then…to live in such a space. I also liked the idea of sisterhood and loved singing hymns. None of the faults of the church we now know were anywhere present for me then. I was eight I think and hoped to become the perfect child I wasn’t. It simply wasn’t to be and I grew out of that ‘romance’ and into many other romances,

    1. deemallon

      interesting, Michelle. I think my desire to be a nun flamed out in fourth grade. I made the grave error of telling a friend that I thought our Catechism instructor was stupid. Then turned an saw her right behind us! ARG! For weeks I tried to figure out whether and how to apologize. I did eventually do so and learned that she hadn’t heard me.

  5. fabricwoman

    Good to know I’m not the only passenger assisting on takeoffs and landings; however, my preferred method is singing Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” under my breath.

  6. Marti

    Ex Catholic here : The nun who escorted me and the other non Catholic school kids to catechism was all of 4’11’ ,Sister Maria but you knew better than to mess around with her even though, at times, she could be funny and was kind. She liked to sing and sometimes a bit of a song would escape as we walked. The rest of the nuns, all tall and so stern of countenance felt intimidating and joyless…

    One of the biggest argument that my parents had was about Catholic school: my mother wanted us to go, my Dad said he wanted us in a public school with children from all backgrounds. He won that argument and I am ever so grateful that he did.

    I grew up in a divided household where the Catholic church was concerned: My Mother went to church every day, member of the Altar Society which was her whole social network and my Dad went twice a year, at Christmas and on their anniversary. Still, I didn’t worry about going to hell because we had a get out of hell card…The old Irish priest came to lunch twice a month, after Sunday mass and after lunch, he and my Dad would retreat to my Dad’s shed and drink the homemade wine that my Dad made. During those times, our neighborhood was often serenaded with Irish and Spanish song, courtesy of my Dad’s wine. I figured that we could do no wrong in the eyes of the church…

    For how no nonsense Sister Maria was, I liked her and wondered why she couldn’t come to lunch but the nuns were not allowed to visit parishioners. I often wonder if she had been able to come to our home, if I would have wanted to become a nun…but nah, the world and all of its secrets, pleasures and experiences pulled and I left the church when I was 15.

    1. deemallon

      that’s a riot that entertaining the priest was considered a ‘get out of hell’ card! I really was raised Catholic-lite. My mother made a lackluster conversion when she married my father, who by the time I was in grade school was an avowed atheist. We stopped attending Mass when we made the seventh move of my childhood (I was ten). Never was confirmed.


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