The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: A review

It begins with a suicide. Jim, a young Irish Catholic immigrant in Brooklyn, recently fired from his job as a subway motorman for being chronically late or absent, decides that he'll show his former bosses and his wife that he is the one who is in charge of his life. 

The way he will show them is to end that life. And so he opens the gas taps in their apartment while his wife is out and he lies down to die. Yes, that'll show them! 

His pregnant wife returns home to find a burned apartment - someone struck a match - and a dead husband. And now no means of support. 

Enter the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. The nuns provide medical care for the sick of the neighborhood who cannot afford doctors. They take charge of the widow and her unborn child. They find employment for her at their convent and they provide emotional and financial support for the family in the difficult months and years ahead.

The Ninth Hour is the story of that family and these nuns. The widow, Anne, gives birth to a daughter, Sally, who becomes a child of the convent. And the story is narrated by Sally's children, so we get, essentially, the perspective of three generations of the family, as well as following the nuns on their rounds in the community.

Sally, as a child, greatly admires the nuns and she wants to be like them. When she is old enough, she decides that she has a vocation to become a nursing nun. Her mother and the nuns put her on a train to Chicago where she is to receive her training. 

But her interactions with her fellow passengers on the train are a rude awakening to what the world and its great unwashed humanity are really like. By the time she reaches Chicago she has "thought better of it" and she turns around and goes back to Brooklyn. 

The time period of this story is never explicitly stated but seems to be in the first half of the twentieth century. It's at a time when milk is still delivered in a bottle by a milkman and that milkman plays a big part in this story.

McDermott tells her tale quietly, with great subtlety. These characters are ordinary people who live their lives imperfectly, with mistakes and wrong turns aplenty, but through it all they persevere, keep moving forward and trying to do their best for themselves and their families. 

In the end, their ordinary lives show us something extraordinary about humanity. The Irish Catholic immigrant experience in early twentieth century Brooklyn becomes a lens through which we can see the best and worst of humanity and understand the commonality of what we all share.

Although the book's narrative dragged a bit for me at times, on the whole, I really enjoyed McDermott's style of writing. Simple and matter-of-fact, it seemed to fit the story she was telling. We were introduced to a lot of characters and never really got to know most of them well, except for Sally, but these are people who earned our empathy.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars   


  1. It sounds like a good character study on human nature. I'm glad you liked this one very much, Dorothy.

    1. I did like it. I thought it was very revealing of a particular period of history and the cultural mindset of that period. And it had sympathetic characters which is always a plus.

  2. I haven't read this one yet but I have enjoyed every book I have read by this author.

    1. I don't think I have actually ever read anything of hers before, but based on this experience, I would be open to reading other books of hers.


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