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Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Ninth Hour
The Ninth Hour
A Novel
by Alice McDermott

Hardcover (19 Sep 2017), 256 pages.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN-13: 9780374280147
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Rendered with remarkable lucidity and intelligence, Alice McDermott's The Ninth Hour is a crowning achievement of one of the finest American writers at work today

On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens the gas taps in his Brooklyn tenement. He is determined to prove - to the subway bosses who have recently fired him, to his badgering, pregnant wife - "that the hours of his life belong to himself alone." In the aftermath of the fire that follows, Sister St. Savior, an aging nun, a Little Sister of the Sick Poor, appears, unbidden, to direct the way forward for his widow and his unborn child.

In Catholic Brooklyn, in the early part of the twentieth century, decorum, superstition, and shame collude to erase the man's brief existence, and yet his suicide, although never spoken of, reverberates through many lives - testing the limits and the demands of love and sacrifice, of forgiveness and forgetfulness, even through multiple generations.

These Short Dark Days

FEBRUARY 3 WAS A DARK AND DANK DAY altogether: cold spitting rain in the morning and a low, steel-gray sky the rest of the afternoon.

At four, Jim convinced his wife to go out to do her shopping before full darkness fell. He closed the door on her with a gentle wave. His hair was thinning and he was missing a canine on the right side, but he was nevertheless a handsome man who, at thirty-two, might still have passed for twenty. Heavy brows and deep-set, dark-lashed eyes that had been making women catch their breath since he was sixteen. Even if he had grown bald and toothless, as he seemed fated to do, the eyes would have served him long into old age.

His overcoat was on the hall tree beside the door. He lifted it and rolled it lengthwise against his thighs. Then he fitted it over the threshold, tucking the cloth of the sleeves and the hem as well as he could into the space beneath the door. Theirs was a railroad flat: kitchen in the back, dining room, living room, bedroom in the front. He needed only to push the heavy couch a few feet farther along the wall to block his wife's return. He stood on the seat to check that the glass transom above the door was tightly closed. Then he stepped down. He straightened the lace on the back of the couch and brushed away the shallow impression his foot had made on the horsehair cushion.

In the kitchen, he pressed his cheek to the cold enamel of the stove and slid his hand into the tight space between it and the yellow wall. He groped a bit. They kept a baited mousetrap back there, or had in the past, and it made him careful. He found the rubber hose that connected the oven to the gas tap and pulled at it as vigorously as he could, given the confined space. There was a satisfying pop, and a hiss that quickly faded. He straightened up with the hose in his hand. The kitchen window looked into the gray courtyard where, on better days, there would be lines of clothes baking in the sun, although the floor of the deep courtyard, even in the prettiest weather, was a junkyard and a jungle. There were rats and bedsprings and broken crates. A tangle of city-bred vegetation: a sickly tree, black vines, a long-abandoned attempt at a garden. From rag-and-bone man to wayward drunk, any voice that ever rose out of its depths was the voice of someone up to no good. Once, Annie, sitting on the windowsill with a clothespin in her mouth and a basket of wet linen at her feet, saw a man drag a small child through the muck and tie him to the rough pole that held the line. She watched the man take off his belt, and, with the first crack of it against the child's bare calves, she began to yell. She threw the clothespins at him, a potted ivy plant, and then the metal washbasin still filled with soapy water. Leaning halfway out the window herself, she threatened to call the police, the fire department, the Gerrity Society. The man, as if pursued only by a change in the weather, a sudden rain, glanced up briefly, shrugged, and then untied the sobbing child and dragged him away. "I know who you are," Annie cried. Although she didn't. She was an easy liar. She paced the street for an hour that afternoon, waiting for the man and the boy to reappear.

When Jim ran into the kitchen at the sound of her shouting, she was from head to waist out the window, with only one toe on the kitchen floor. He'd had to put his hands on her hips to ease her out of danger. Just one more of what had turned out to be too many days he hadn't gone in to work or had arrived too late for his shift.

His trouble was with time. Bad luck for a trainman, even on the BRT. His trouble was, he liked to refuse time. He delighted in refusing it. He would come to the end of a long night, to the inevitability of 5 a.m.—that boundary, that abrupt wall toward which all the night's pleasures ran (drink, talk, sleep, or Annie's warm flesh)—and while other men, poor sheep, gave in every morning, turned like lambs in the chute from the pleasures of sleep or drink or talk or love to the duties of the day, he had been aware since his childhood that with the easiest refusal, eyes shut, he could continue as he willed. I'm not going, he'd only have to murmur. I won't be constrained. Of course, it didn't always require refusing the whole day. Sometimes just the pleasure of being an hour or two late was enough to remind him that he, at least, was his own man, that the hours of his life—and what more precious commodity did he own?—belonged to himself alone.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2017 by Alice McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Despite his suicide in the opening pages, Annie's husband, Jim, remains a presence throughout The Ninth Hour. He abandons his pregnant wife and defies the tenets of his faith to prove that "the hours of his life . . . belonged to himself alone." How does Annie choose to remember him? How is his daughter, Sally, like him? When his grandchildren finally learn the truth about his death, what is their response?
  2. How did Sister Lucy, Sister Jeanne, and Sister Illuminata each come to the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, Congregation of Mary Before the Cross? How does the work each of them chose suit their talents and personalities? How do they differ in their beliefs about God and faith, sin and human weakness?
  3. What wisdom do the old impart to the young? What is gained when older and younger characters connect with each other, as Sister St. Saviour with Annie when she is newly widowed? What is lost when they fail to connect, as Patrick Tierney's father and grandfather?
  4. Who are the people and what are the events that influence Sally's character, values, and beliefs as she grows into adulthood? How is the girl who left for Chicago to enter the convent different from the girl who returns home the next day? What happens that changes her? What does she still have to learn that the nuns can't teach her?
  5. Sally and Patrick are infants the first time we see them together. Their mothers were introduced by Sister Lucy. Patrick has jokingly told his children that when he saw their mother riding in her baby carriage, he immediately said to himself, "There's the girl I'll marry." Over the years, how do Annie and Liz Tierney support each other? As a young girl, how do s Sally feel about Liz's household? What kind of man is Patrick?
  6. The Ninth Hour is as much a series of linked stories as it is one story told chronologically. How do the individual stories deal with themes such as truth, faith, motherhood, love, and sacrifice? What is The Ninth Hour, and how is it observed in the convent? What is its biblical meaning? Why might Alice McDermott have chosen it as her title?
  7. The full name of the order to which the sisters belong and that Sally decides to join is the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, Congregation of Mary Before the Cross, Stabat Mater. To Sister Jeanne, Stabat Mater symbolizes the triumph of love over brutality. To Sister Illuminata, it means that love applied to suffering is "like a clean cloth to a seeping wound." Why is "Stabat Mater" the title of the chapter about Sally coming home from Chicago and discovering the truth about Annie and Mr. Costello?
  8. What do we know about Sally and Patrick's married ife? What strengths and faults have each of them brought to their life together? What do we know about the lives of their children? Sister Jeanne remains close to the family into her old age. What is the "pernt" of the story she tells about Jeanne Jugan? What else does she teach the Tierney children?
  9. In contrast to Sister Jeanne, Sister Lucy seems skeptical, pragmatic, and often disgruntled. "All joy was thin ice to Sister Lucy," McDermott writes. But Sister Lucy is also a skilled nurse and a fierce advocate of people who are poor, sick, or mistreated. What does Sally learn from Sister Lucy, not only about nursing, but also about the human capacity for cruelty and kindness?
  10. Who is Red Whelan? How does his fate reverberate down through the generations of the Tierney family? What are other examples of sacrifice?
  11. Liz and Annie become close friends when their children are small, yet their lives are very different. What kind of Catholic is Liz Tierney? What is her opinion of the nuns? How are her beliefs and the practice of her faith not like Annie's?
  12. Sister Jeanne teaches the Tierney children that "God wants us to know the truth in all things," yet there are many parts of their family story they do not know the truth about. Who are the truth tellers in the book? Who lies, embellishes, or withholds the truth? How does the family's story change as it is told and retold? How might Patrick and Sally each tell the story of the day they fell in love?
  13. What do the other characters think about Annie's relationship with Mr. Costello? Why is she not dismissed from the convent laundry when the nuns learn of what they call her "indiscretion?" What are the different kinds of "hunger" in the chapter "A Tonic"? What is the tonic?
  14. Is Mrs. Costello a pathetic or a sympathetic character? How does Sister Lucy feel about her? What are Sally's motives for choosing to spend time with her? How is Sally changed by her death?
  15. What is the sequence of events leading up to Mrs. Costello's death? Does Sister Lucy believe that the nuns were doing the right thing by keeping her alive when she wanted to die? What does Sister Jeanne mean when she tells Sally, "God is fair. He knows the truth." Why, years later, does Sister Jeanne tell Sally's children that she has "lost heaven"?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A powerfully affecting story spanning the twentieth century of a widow and her daughter and the nuns who serve their Irish-American community in Brooklyn.

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In a pivotal scene in The Ninth Hour, young Sally encounters an increasingly loathsome series of degenerates on an ill-fated train ride across the country. She is beset on all sides by horrors: "Pale, sleeping faces with gaping, distorted mouths, sprawled limbs, a hollow-eyed soldier...a yellow-skinned man folding into himself, gazing forward with a murderous look. A young woman in a jaunty hat, chewing gum ferociously, reading a magazine, picking her nose." The protagonist is traveling from New York to Chicago to join a convent, but is suddenly faced with an existential crisis: Is this the humanity to whom she's meant to devote herself? This theme, of religion as a necessary balm in a world plagued by pain and misery, resonates throughout Alice McDermott's new novel.

In early twentieth century Brooklyn, Sally's mother is employed in the laundry for the Little Nursing Sisters of the Poor (see 'Beyond the Book'). The little girl grows up to idolize the Sisters and, believing it is kismet, travels to Chicago with a letter of introduction to a convent there, but fate intercedes again. When Sally returns home, she is shocked to find her mother involved with a married man, much to the consternation of the bevy of nuns. Meanwhile, on the periphery, we are given glimpses of Sally's future husband, as the two build a friendship over the years.

One of her grown children, speaking from the future, narrates the novel. This allows the story to stretch over several decades, and for McDermott to provide rich characterization, particularly of the nuns. There is Sister Jeanne, who, in the beginning, is a young idealist. She "felt the breath of God warm on her neck," and is a friend to young Sally, explaining complex moral concepts to her. She points out that a child who is denied candy will say that the action is not fair. If even children know what "fair" means, that knowledge must have been given by God at birth. He wants us to know that heaven is our reward for enduring the injustices that are part of life on Earth. Life may not seem fair, but the afterlife will make it so. By the end though, Sister Jeanne is an old woman, certain she has lost God's grace.

Then there is Sister Lucy, a cranky curmudgeon with a dark back story that convinced her, "a woman's life is a blood sacrifice." Potent descriptions effectively demonstrate the power of the seemingly quotidian. "A half piece of bread, well bitten and stained with dark gravy. A glass of tea on the edge of a folded newspaper," these are details of a person's evening meal interrupted by a tragic event. A building in which a fire has recently been extinguished has a "smell of doused peat, of damp stone and swollen wood. Fire, shipwreck, the turned earth of graveyards." While some readers may find the graphic descriptions of the corporeal reality faced by the Nursing Sisters gratuitous, it is an effective means of drawing attention to their mission, which is ministering to God's children, body and soul.

McDermott, a National Book Award winner, excels at the quietly potent story where small moments build into something greater. The Ninth Hour is a novel about grace, family, sacrifice, and duty, how some serve God by serving other people, and how the idea of transcendence makes the earthly world bearable.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

The Millions
A generational novel sure to appeal to longtime McDermott fans, and to bring-in new readers as well.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Everything that her readers, the National Book Award committee, and the Pulitzer Prize judges love about McDermott's (Someone, 2013, etc.) stories of Irish-Catholic American life is back in her eighth novel.

Booklist
Starred Review. McDermott’s extraordinary precision, compassion, and artistry are entrancing and sublime. . . This is one of literary master McDermott’s most exquisite works.

Library Journal
Starred Review. In lucid, flowing prose, McDermott weaves her character’ stories to powerful effect. Highly recommended.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. McDermott delivers an immense, brilliant novel about the limits of faith, the power of sacrifice, and the cost of forgiveness.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Kate Collins
A GREAT STORY.
Aside from all other wonderfully wrought considerations it is a thrilling story of life abounding which I told twice in the one day I finished the book. It is really thrilling.

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The Little Sisters of the Poor and Sister St. Jeanne Jugan

The nuns in The Ninth Hour belong to the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order with humble beginnings, founded by Sister St. Jeanne Jugan, also known as Sister Mary of the Cross. Jugan was born in Brittany, France in 1792, amid the hardships of the French Revolution, a time when Catholics were being persecuted. Her mother provided her with religious instruction in secret, and Jeanne joined the Third Order of St. John Eudes where she worked as a nurse.

Sister St. Jeanne Jugan In the winter of 1839, Jeanne had a fortuitous encounter with an ailing elderly woman named Anne Chauvin. Seeing the woman was badly in need of care, Jeanne brought her home to her own apartment, which she shared with two other women. From that day forward, Jeanne continued to take in the aged and infirm until their numbers required greater space, which she acquired in 1841 in the form of a spare building in a nearby convent. Jeanne's mission attracted numerous followers and by 1850, over 100 women were serving under what had become the Little Sisters of the Poor.

In 1843, however, there was a restructuring of the Little Sisters organization, and Jugan was forced out of her position as superior by Father Augustin Marie Le Pailleur. Jugan would die without receiving proper credit for the founding and advancement of this remarkable order. She passed away in 1879 in obscurity. The Little Sisters, unaware of her legacy, failed to acknowledge her as founder, as Le Pailleur had taken this title for himself. In 1890, the Church launched an investigation into the matter and Le Pailleur was reprimanded and removed from his position, Jugan restored to her proper place in history.

The Little Sisters of the Poor first came to America from France in 1868, and established thirteen homes in four years, including the one in Brooklyn that serves as a setting for The Ninth Hour. Shortly thereafter, homes were established in Cincinnati, New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Louisville, Boston, Cleveland, and finally, Washington D.C. There are currently 27 Little Sisters of the Poor locations operating in the United States catering to the needs of the elderly and impoverished. Jeanne Jugan was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and canonized as a saint in 2009.

Having met Jeanne Jugan in 1846, novelist Charles Dickens remarked, "There is in this woman something so calm, and so holy, that in seeing her I know myself to be in the presence of a superior being. Her words went straight to my heart, so that my eyes, I know not how, filled with tears."

By Lisa Butts

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