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A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan

A Prayer for the Dying (1999)

by Stewart O'Nan

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The use of second person present tense throughout was irritating and in fact, repellent; the prose was otherwise undistinguished; the plot was basically a Civil War era zombie story. If there was an examination of "faith" it felt fake and pat, like a Hollywood movie treatment. I really don't get what the fuss was about. ( )
  CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
This book was incredibly atmospheric and haunting. The story builds at perfect pace becoming dark and relentless calling into question everything we, as the main character Jacob, once believed.

This is one I will reread. ( )
  dtn620 | Sep 22, 2013 |
This was one of the more depressing books I've read lately. ( )
  chaosmogony | Apr 27, 2013 |
This novel will slowly take you down a dark path, as Jacob Hansen, preacher, sheriff and undertaker, tries to keep his small Wisconsin town alive against a diphtheria outbreak. He is also haunted by his recent experiences in the Civil War, which pushed him to the brink of sanity. This book has the feel, and undoubtedly the quality, of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Find a copy and get hooked on the works of Stewart O'Nan. ( )
  hayduke | Apr 3, 2013 |
In the late 1970s a book of old photographs called [b:Wisconsin Death Trip|200081|Wisconsin Death Trip (Wisconsin)|Michael Lesy|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1172627923s/200081.jpg|193568] was rather popular in the upper Midwest. The most shocking of the photographs to our modern sensibilities were those of dead children in their coffins. I kept thinking about that book as I read [a:Stewart O'Nan|18341|Stewart O'Nan|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1206592605p2/18341.jpg]'s [b:A Prayer Before Dying].

I chose to read the book because it received rave reviews from some people on the DorothyL mystery list, but I wouldn't call it a mystery. It is almost a horror novel, although not in any supernatural sense. One could also call it an examination of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The book is written using the second person singular, an unusual style, as if perhaps the reader is being forcibly put in the place of the protagonist. He is a Civil War veteran who fills three jobs in the small town of Friendship, Wisconsin: he is the town constable, the undertaker, and the lay preacher in the church. When the book opens, he is summoned to pick up a body in the woods behind a local farm, and finds that it is a fellow veteran (unknown to him) who is on the tramp and appears to have been murdered. But his investigation is put aside when diphtheria appears in town. He and the town doctor must decide how to handle the threat of an epidemic, and they decide wrongly. As if things weren't bad enough, a huge forest fire is raging in the region and keeps getting closer to Friendship. It's not far into the book before you realize there will be no happy ending here.

There really was a great fire in northeastern Wisconsin in 1871 (at the same time as, though unrelated to, the Chicago fire), and anyone who has walked through a Midwestern cemetery from that era has doubtless seen evidence of diphtheria epidemics. Although I can't say I enjoyed this book, it was well-written and a study of one man's descent into madness in the face of disaster. It would be interesting to read this in conjunction with [a:Geraldine Brooks|211268|Geraldine Brooks|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1223175116p2/211268.jpg]'s [b:Year of Wonders|4965|Year of Wonders|Geraldine Brooks|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1165517036s/4965.jpg|3211895], with which it has both similarities and differences. ( )
  auntieknickers | Apr 3, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312255012, Paperback)

When his town's sleepy summer tranquility is shattered by an outbreak of diphtheria, Jacob Hansen--constable, deacon, and undertaker--stares at an impossible dilemma: save both himself and his family or observe his many duties? Although he's nearly convinced that it's possible to do both, the inexorable and crushing horror of Stewart O'Nan's fifth novel, A Prayer for the Dying, is that evil doesn't flinch, that its insistence can obliterate goodness, corrupt humility. "When won't faith save you?" Jacob wonders; the silence soon deafens him.

An ostensibly inured Civil War veteran, Jacob watches helplessly as his neighbors in tiny Friendship, Wisconsin, are stricken with disease: simply hearing a mother say of her daughter, "She's sick," becomes chilling. Yet even as his wife and baby fall ill, Jacob patiently, dutifully tends to the helpless and buries the dead. When panic erupts, however, and he grapples with the tragedies accumulating before him, he feels the prick of spiritual doubt, even succumbs to violence. "Is this the devil's work?" Jacob asks as he struggles to discern the good in a world without order, watches those he serves turn against him, and disregards his own moral outrage.

O'Nan's style is taut and often oddly lovely, its immediacy braced by an unnerving second-person voice. The novel is, at root, spiritually terrifying. It forces us to consider at what remove we truly are from evil. Overwhelmed with checking his own despair, Jacob begins by pondering how to halt wickedness and ineluctably finds himself sustaining its slow creep. You wonder if he ever had a prayer. --Ben Guterson

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:28:19 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A diphtheria epidemic breaks out in a small town in post-Civil War Wisconsin and as people die Jacob Hansen, the community's sheriff and pastor, buries the dead and burns buildings. A study in tragedy and grief.

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