Wednesday, May 04, 2022

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, c. 2017

Our Monday Book Club's selection for May was The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott. We had a lively discussion with some points mentioned, but not developed. This is a copy of my letter to the group to address some of the issues.
Before I returned the book to the library I wanted to check 2 things—Sally’s reason for leaving Chicago as soon as she got there, and Sister Jeanne’s statement, “I gave up my place in heaven a long time ago.” I’d also like to address the concern about theology of the characters/the writer.

The first is summarized on pages 153-159. Sally is thinking at night on the train about her father’s job on the BRT, dozes, sees the little boy, and muses on “She was going to give her life to others, in the name of the crucified Christ and His loving mother. She was going to join the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, Congregation of Mary Before the Cross, Stabat Mater, which Sister Jeanne thought the most beautiful name of all the orders. Because it reminded us all, Sister Jeanne said, that love stood before brutality in that moment on Golgotha and love was triumphant. Love applied to suffering, as Sister Illuminata put it: like a clean cloth to a seeping wound.” (Then images of the convent laundry where she’d spent her most formative years with the nuns). Then she physically attacks the disgusting woman who tormented her. She sees she cannot live up to her images of the nuns who helped raise her.

The second is the death of Mrs. Costello. “Her troubles were endless and her care was endless.” Both Sister Jeanne and Sally love Annie who will not be moved from her sinful behavior. Sally’s intentions are preceded by a few signs, like leaving the food uncovered and leaving the apartment before taking care of Mrs. Costello’s fever (p. 208) and her easy lies (p. 211). The writer repeats the “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” line she used with the disgusting woman on the train. It sounds minor but it shows Sally slipping away from her values. We already know the details of the poorly prepared applesauce, and how alum can kill, although we don’t know why we have those details. If Mrs. Costello died, then Annie would be free to marry Mr. Costello, Sally could have her mother back, and the sinning would stop. “Her plan was to exchange her own immortal soul for her mother’s mortal happiness.” (p. 225) Four times on one page this plan is called ridiculous. However, if you read p. 224-226 carefully, neither Sally or Sister Jeanne actually carry out their plan—or at least we don’t see it and the narrator (Sally’s children) doesn’t either--one with poisoned tea and one with applesauce. Sister Jeanne stops Sally with her arm movement, Mrs. Costello is coughing, gulping and choking. We never see/read (in the writer’s words) Sister Jeanne give Mrs. Costello the applesauce, she has the cup and spoon in her hand, and Sally is looking at the photograph of the wedding photo. When she turns and sees what is happening the spoon is still poised in sister’s hand. Sister Lucy arrives and the 2 nuns begin to slap and pounded on her back in a last attempt to restore her breathing.

McDermott’s skill as a writer and plot developer is incredible. It’s very spare; every detail matters. Her use of words, even reusing phrases and simple thoughts over, seems appropriate for the simple life of the characters—not rich, not educated, not clever. Short, crisp phrases and sentences, words that are not multisyllabic. We never could pin down the era or dates, but did you notice WWI, The Great Depression and WWII do not appear as characters or even a back drop. The Civil War figures in slightly to show another kind of substitutionary behavior. Their world is very self-contained and small.

As far as theology goes, I do see a serious lack on Sister Jeanne’s part, in that Confession (called the Sacrament of Reconciliation) could have absolved her of her guilt. Same with Sally. I think they knew that, but chose not to seek forgiveness. With Sister Jeanne it might have been her less than generous opinion of the parish priests. Even if they didn’t actually do the deed (and that’s up to interpretation) they had planned it, and in the heart according to Jesus it’s a done deal. Jesus gave that authority to his disciples who pass it down to priests today. It’s even that way in Lutheran and Anglican churches. Lutherans (I be one) say it every Sunday and the pastor says, “As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (sign of the cross).”

As far as the differences between Protestants and Catholics, it is more common for Protestants even if not openly Calvinists, to believe in “imputed righteousness” and Catholics to believe in “infused righteousness.” Catholic theology would take very seriously the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount and Matthew 25, that one meets Jesus in person while offering aid and comfort to the hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, etc. The nuns in McDermott’s novel live out this theology, they meet joyfully Christ in the suffering of the people they help. Whether or not McDermott is only nominally Catholic she accurately portrays Catholicism.

Thank you, Margie, for bringing this book to us. I really enjoyed it.

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