by Alice McDermott
If you’ve watched the TV series “Call the Midwife”, then you’ll feel right at home reading “The Ninth Hour” by Alice McDermott. In fact I had to remind myself that this story of selfless nuns was taking place in Brooklyn, New York, not the south end of London after the war. McDermott’s novel portrays many universal themes of women’s oppression around that era, and the consequences of being poor and sick.
A rather bleak story, the novel offers insights into the lives of these religious women and illustrates the self-motivation required to give your life to God. With their focus on finding workable solutions for the unfortunate people they work for, occasionally they have to bend the rules. For Annie, an Irish immigrant who came to America and was widowed early, life was extremely bleak until the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor stepped in to give pregnant Annie a job in the convent’s laundry.
Annie and her daughter Sally live a cloistered life, eventually leading teenage Sally to believe that her calling is to join their religious order. The outcome of this decision demonstrates the internal struggles of boundless love for one’s fellow humans, and how challenging this can be for women in religious orders.
McDermott shows rather than tells her story, challenging the reader to read between the lines and understand the true meaning of sacrifice for these women as they struggle to improve the lives of those they serve in their community.