Book Review: A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan

Good versus evil. Struggles of faith. These have been themes of literature for centuries, if not from the first time humankind told stories. In fact, the best-selling book of all time — the Bible — is built on these themes. In the brilliant and disturbing A Prayer for the Dying, Stewart O’Nan brings an Old Testament feel to post-Civil War Wisconsin.

Jacob Hansen is a Civil War vet who now resides with his wife and young daughter in Friendship, Wisc. He is not only the sheriff, he also serves as the town undertaker and a preacher. But Friendship is on the verge of two crises of Biblical proportions — a possible diphtheria outbreak and a raging fire in a tinderbox summer.

Hansen’s roles combine to make us wonder if he should have been named Job, beset as he is by travails and tribulations. As sheriff he is faced with the task of not only protecting his town, but, joined with his role as undertaker, preventing the diphtheria from spreading elsewhere. As undertaker, he is responsible for taking care of the physical bodies of the diseased deceased, whose numbers increase with time. As preacher, he is responsible for taking care of the spiritual needs of both the dead and the living. All these duties also compete with his duty as a husband and father and his human instincts.

What with the focus on disease and death, you wouldn’t think this is the type of book that might be considered “unputdownable.” Yet it comes very, very close. O’Nan draws us in and keeps us riveted as Hansen struggles with his own ghosts, fears and emotions as he seeks to fulfill his duties to his family, his community and neighboring areas. Part of the power comes from A Prayer for the Dying being written in second personal singular. Although Hansen is relating the story, he refers to himself as “you,” such as, “You’ve been in the business long enough to understand grief.” This unique perspective leaves the reader doing and experiencing as much as Hansen. The perspective is also indicative of the impact of Hansen’s Civil War experiences. The form of narration reinforces the impression that there are many facets to Hansen’s personality and that he at times functions outside himself, with one part of him carrying on an ongoing discussion with another part.

At the core of the book is the internal struggle that can created by choices and Hansen’s own struggle of faith. Should he and the town’s doctor impose a quarantine, given the twin threats of diphtheria and fire? If so, when? Should he use his knowledge of the fact a couple outsiders have died of diphtheria to send his wife and infant daughter away for safety’s sake while not telling anyone else? What risks do his jobs pose his family and anyone else with whom he comes in contact? Why has God beset him and his town with plague and fire? O’Nan packs this all into less than 200 pages of highly readable prose.

Originally published in 1999, Picador Books is using the book’s 10th anniversary to release another paperback edition as the summer 2009 selection for “The Best Book You Never Read.” While A Prayer for the Dying isn’t beach reading, it is a superb choice. If, like me, you haven’t read this novel before, you are missing something very special. If you’ve already read it, it is unquestionably worth reading again — and again

It’s astonishing how quickly things fall apart.

Stewart O’Nan, A Prayer for the Dying

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