Book Review: A Prayer For the Dying


Stewart O’Nan (1999)

I loved loved loved loved loved this book. Having read two of this author’s books and loved them both (and being well on my way through a third) I think I can state for the record that Stewart O’Nan has moved into The Pantheon of My Favorite Authors.

You know how sometimes you can read a book, and within the first page, and sometimes even the first paragraph, you just know that it’s going to be great and you’re going to love it? That’s how I felt when I began this book. I immediately recalled how much I had enjoyed this author’s writing style when I read his first book Snow Angels back in 1997.

Here’s the first paragraph from A Prayer For the Dying, in which O’Nan is able to perfectly conjure up a Midwestern summer day, with an economy of words.

High summer and Friendship’s quiet. The men tend the shimmering fields.  Children tramp the woods, wade the creeks, sound the cool ponds. In town, women pause in the heavy air of the millinery, linger over bolts of yard goods, barrels of clumped flour. The only sound’s the freight drumming through the south, tossing its plume of cinders above the treetops, the trucks clicking a mile off. Then quiet, the buzz of insects, the breathless afternoon. Cows twitch and flick.

This incredibly moving story is set in Friendship, Wisconsin, just after the Civil War. Friendship is a town on the brink of tremendous and traumatic events that will test the will and faith of each citizen, none more so than the narrator Jacob Hansen, the town’s sheriff, undertaker and pastor. Within the span of two weeks (and less than 200 pages) the town is utterly transformed by a diphtheria epidemic.

O’Nan uses an unusual second-person style that places the reader as witness to the nightmare from Jacob’s perspective:

“Diphtheria,” you echo, trying it out in your mouth…The two of you sit there a minute in the cool room, pondering what this means to Friendship. Your thoughts refuse to connect, run together like the cicadas outside, screaming in the trees.

Throughout the book, Jacob’s faith is tested; this war veteran who thought he’d seen every horror imaginable is called on time-and-again to perform unimaginable acts.

This is a heartbreaking, wrenching and riveting story. The climactic scene is one of the most exciting that I’ve read. I highly recommend it.

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