Set in early 20th-century Brooklyn, this novel focuses on the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor and a mother and her daughter whom the nuns have helped. Annie, a young widow, is given work in the convent’s laundry and her daughter Sally is virtually raised there. As a young woman, Sally considers joining the sisterhood but the reader knows she does not truly have a vocation because one of Sally’s children intermittently narrates the story.
It is the characterization of the nuns which stands out for me. They are seen as they work amongst the poor and wretched of the city; they are both nurses and social workers in the service of the indigent and sick. It is their task “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.” They enter places “unprepared for visitors, arrested, as things so often were by crisis and tragedy, in the midst of what should have been a private hour.” As they visit invalids and shut-ins, details of what they see are not spared; bodily fluids are abundant. It is clear that these nuns are a dying breed: “The call to sanctity and self-sacrifice, the delusion and superstition it required, fading from the world even then.”
Each of the nuns emerges as a strong individual with a distinct personality. Though they perform numerous good deeds and are compassionate women, they are flawed human beings. Sister St. Saviour turns a cold shoulder to God; “It was the way a bitter old wife might turn her back on a faithless husband.” And she openly states, “’It would be a different Church if I were running it.’” Sister Lucy “lived with a small, tight knot of fury at the center of her chest.” And St. Jeanne claims, “’I lost heaven a long time ago’” because of a deed she performed out of love. It is refreshing to see nuns be willing to flout the rules when they feel it is best. One sister has little respect for the rules of church and society because she believes many of them “complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular and poor women in general.” The nuns are even willing to sin and face the consequences later. One who bends the rules makes a bargain with God: “Hold it against the good I’ve done, she prayed. We’ll sort it out when I see You.”
The book examines, in detail, the human condition. Everyone faces hunger of some sort, whether it be physical hunger or “a hunger to be comforted.” People want to be loved though it is repeated that for the world’s ills, “Love’s a tonic, . . . not a cure.” People strive to live a good life in their chosen role; Sister Illuminata, for example, labours in the laundry day after day because she believes herself to have been called “to become, in a ghastly world, the pure, clean antidote to filth.” Everyone faces death: “A terrible stillness would overtake them all, come what may. A terrible silence would stop their breaths, one way or another.”
This book is not full of action and adventure, but those who appreciate realistic characterization and an examination of real life will find much to admire.