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Craig Jones

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A Prayer for the Dying

A Prayer for the Dying
Stewart O'Nan
Publish date: 2009-05-26


Set just after the Civil War, A Prayer for the Dying is the story of a small Wisconsin town gripped by a mysterious, deadly epidemic, and one man desperate to save it. Torn between his loyalty to his family, his faith in God, and his terror of this vicious disease, Jacob Hansen struggles to preserve his sanity amid the chaos and violence around him.


I missed this book when it was first published, but it's been repackaged by Picador as a Best Book You've Never Read. That bit of hyperbole aside (without reading them all, how can I know?) I'm glad it was brought to my attention, however belatedly.

A Prayer for the Dying was widely reviewed when it was first released, so it is hard to find something original to say about it. The first thing I noticed is that it is narrated in the second person, a notoriously dicey choice that in this case works brilliantly. First, it forces you to identify with the Jacob. And later, you get the impression that Jacob is using this as a means of distancing himself from his own disintegrating life, as if all this is happening to you, and not to him:

"You crawl on your knees, feeling in the dust for your gun, your chest aching with every heartbeat. It's like a stitch, digging at you. Finally your hand blunders against metal. To your surprise, you find the hammer still cocked. You didn't know you were so close. Holster it, snap the snap. You know it's stupid to fire in anger.

'Should have killed him,' you say.

You're quiet. Does that mean you agree?" (p. 151)

Jacob is the town constable, the undertaker, and a preacher. When the diphtheria epidemic strikes, all three of his duties come into play, they are sometimes in conflict, and his faith is tested. He declares a town quarantine, and has to quarantine individual houses. Fire is a recurring theme, including a wildfire that concludes this grim story.

O'Nan acknowledges Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip as the inspiration for this story, and it certainly has some of the same macabre flavor. I would hesitate to recommend this book with its high creepiness factor, except for the fact that it is so well written that my admiration well surpasses my repugnance. Like Richard Bausch's Peace, it's a case where a character (and the reader) must be thrust into extreme circumstances in order to explore the deepest aspects of humanity.