by Mike Mastromatteo
TORONTO (CNS) – Catholic journal of opinion Commonweal describes writer Alice McDermott as one of America’s greatest living novelists, while The Washington Post, in a review of her latest book, says the Catholic Church “lurks” in all of her stories.
But if McDermott is getting tired of being thought of as a Catholic or Irish-American writer, her work “The Ninth Hour” might not help her case.
Released to high acclaim from reviewers throughout North America and beyond, the book describes the life of Annie, an Irish-Catholic widow. She and her infant daughter Sally are taken in and raised by an order of religious sisters in early 20th-century Brooklyn.
The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor is an amalgamation of many of the real-life orders McDermott heard about growing up in an Irish-Catholic family, first in Brooklyn and later on Long Island.
The interplay of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor with their new charges offers poignant insights into pre-Vatican II religious communities, while testifying in their own way to McDermott’s deep respect and admiration for the sisters’ spirit of service. As Sister Illuminata describes to Sally early in “The Ninth Hour”: “A sister makes herself pure … immaculate and pure, not to credit her own soul with her sacrifice – her giving up of the world – but to become the sweet, clean antidote to suffering, to pain.”
There also is a delightful treatment in “The Ninth Hour” of a Sister St. Saviour, whose service to the poor is matched only by her bridling at all forms of authority. Accompanying the widow Annie home from the funeral of her husband, whose death by suicide sets in motion the events of the novel, Sister St. Saviour’s contradictions are laid bare.
“But the woman, childless, stubborn, coming to the close of her life, had a mad heart. Mad for mercy, perhaps, mad for her own authority in all things – a trait Annie had come to love and admire – but mad nonetheless. Riding home from the cemetery, Sister St. Saviour had said, ‘It would be a different church if I were running it.’”
In an interview with Catholic News Service, McDermott agreed that “The Ninth Hour” is her most Catholic work to date.
“It deals quite directly with religious women in the church as a subject, and makes thematic use of essential elements of Christian belief – dying so that others might live, for instance,” McDermott said. “In a broader sense, it is also about faith itself, the vivid belief in things unseen.”
“The Ninth Hour” is McDermott’s eighth novel. “Charming Billy,” published in 1997, won the National Book Award for fiction and an American Book Award. Three other novels have been Pulitzer Prize finalists. She was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame in 2013.
McDermott combines her writing schedule with a teaching position at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she is the Richard A. Macksey professor of the humanities.