Historical Fiction: Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour

by Alice McDermott

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 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, appears unbidden to direct the way forward for his widow and his unborn child.

The Ninth Hour is a historical novel that begins deep inside Catholic Brooklyn, in the early part of the twentieth century. Decorum, superstition, and shame collude to erase the man’s brief existence. Yet his suicide, although never spoken of, reverberates through many lives and over the decades testing the limits and the demands of love and sacrifice, of forgiveness and forgetfulness, even through multiple generations.

The characters we meet, from Sally, the unborn baby at the beginning of the novel, who becomes the center of the story, to the nuns whose personalities we come to know and love, to the neighborhood families with whose lives they are entwined, are all rendered with extraordinary sympathy and McDermott’s trademark lucidity and intelligence. Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour is a crowning achievement by one of the premiere writers at work in America today—keep reading for an excerpt.

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At six, the streetlamps against the wet dark gave a polish to the air. There was the polish of lamplight, too, on streetcar tracks and windowpanes and across the gleaming surface of the scattered black puddles in the street. Reflection of lamplight as well on the rump of the remaining fire truck and on the pale faces of the gathered crowd, with an extra gold sparkle and glint on anyone among them who wore glasses. Sister St. Saviour, for instance, a Little Nursing Sister of the Sick Poor, who had spent the afternoon in the vestibule of the Woolworth’s at Borough Hall, her alms basket in her lap. She was now on her way back to the convent, her bladder full, her ankles swollen, her round glasses turned toward the lamplight and the terrible scent of doused fire on the winter air.

The pouch with the money she had collected today was tied to her belt; the small basket she used was tucked under her cloak and under her arm. The house where the fire had been looked startled: the windows of all four floors were wide open, shade cords and thin curtains flailing in the cold air. Although the rest of the building was dark, the vestibule at the top of the stone stoop was weirdly lit, crowded with policemen and firemen carrying lamps. The front door was open, as, it appeared, was the door to the apartment on the parlor floor. Sister St. Saviour wanted only to walk on, to get to her own convent, her own room, her own toilet—her fingers were cold and her ankles swollen and her thin basket was crushed awkwardly under her arm—but still she brushed through the crowd and climbed the steps. There was a limp fire hose running along the shadowy base of the stone banister. Two of the officers in the hallway, turning to see her, tipped their hats and then put out their hands as if she had been summoned. “Sister,” one of them said. He was flushed and perspiring, and even in the dull light, she could see that the cuffs of his jacket were singed. “Right in here.”

The apartment was crowded with people, perhaps every tenant in the place. The smell of smoke and wet ash, burned wool, burned hair, was part and parcel of the thick pools of candlelight in the room, and of the heavy drone of whispered conversation. There were two groups: one was gathered around a middle-aged man in shirtsleeves and carpet slippers who was sitting in a chair by the window, his face in his hands. The other, across the room, hovered beside a woman stretched out on a dark couch, under a fringed lamp that was not lit. She had a cloth applied to her head, but she seemed to be speaking sensibly to the thin young man who leaned over her. When she saw the nun, the woman raised a limp hand and said, “She’s in the bedroom, Sister.” Her arm from wrist to elbow was glistening with a shiny salve— butter, perhaps.

“You might leave off with that grease,” Sister said. “Unless you’re determined to be basted.” The young man turned at this, laughing. He wore a gray fedora and had a milk tooth in his grin. “Have the courtesy to doff your hat,” she told him.

It was Sister St. Saviour’s vocation to enter the homes of strangers, mostly the sick and the elderly, to breeze into their apartments and to sail comfortably through their rooms, to open their linen closets or china cabinets or bureau drawers—to peer into their toilets or the soiled handkerchiefs clutched in their hands—but the frequency with which she inserted herself into the homes of strangers had not diminished over the years, her initial impulse to stand back, to shade her eyes. She dipped her head as she passed through the parlor, into a narrow corridor, but she saw enough to conclude that a Jewish woman lived here— the woman on the couch, she was certain, a Jewish woman, she only guessed, because of the fringed lampshade, the upright piano against the far wall, the dark oil paintings in the narrow hallway that seemed to depict two ordinary peasants, not saints. A place unprepared for visitors, arrested, as things so often were by crisis and tragedy, in the midst of what should have been a private hour. She saw as she passed by that there was a plate on the small table in the tiny kitchen, that it contained a half piece of bread, well bitten and stained with a dark gravy. A glass of tea on the edge of a folded newspaper.

In the candlelit bedroom, where two more policemen were conferring in the far corner, there were black stockings hung over the back of a chair, a mess of hairbrushes and handkerchiefs on the low dresser, a gray corset on the threadbare carpet at the foot of the bed. There was a girl on the bed, sideways, her dark skirt spread around her, as if she had fallen there from some height. Her back was to the room and her face to the wall. Another woman leaned over her, a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

The policemen nodded to see the nun, and the shorter one took off his cap as he moved toward her. He, too, was singed about the cuffs. He had a heavy face, stale breath, and bad dentures, but there was compassion in the way he gestured with his short arms toward the girl on the bed, toward the ceiling and the upstairs apartment where the fire had been, a compassion that seemed to weigh down his limbs. Softhearted, Sister thought, one of us. The girl, he said, had come in from her shopping and found the door to her place blocked from the inside. She went to her neighbors, the man next door and the woman who lived here. They helped her push the door open, and then the man lit a match to hold against the darkness. There was an explosion. Luckily, the policeman said, he himself was just at the corner and was able to put the fire out while neighbors carried the three of them down here. Inside, in the bedroom, he found a young man on the bed. Asphyxiated. The girl’s husband.


ALICE MCDERMOTT is the author of seven previous novels, including After This; Child of My Heart; Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award; At Weddings and Wakes; and Someone. That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and After This were all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and elsewhere. She is the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University.

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