Stewart O' Nan: A Prayer for the Dying

Stewart O' Nan
A Prayer for the Dying
Henry Holt

EXCITEMENT! DISEASE! DEATH and pestilence! Stewart O' Nan's latest heart-wrencher just might be the bleakest book of the year! A relentless, grueling trip into a living hell! The perfect book for a long hospital stay! Life could always be worse--and in this book, it is!

At the start of A Prayer for the Dying, a small post-Civil War hamlet called Friendship, Wisconsin, is beset by a raging diphtheria outbreak, and only one man is able to stop it. But instead of doing that, he unwittingly spreads the disease to every last one of his townspeople, then watches them die agonizing deaths. Jacob serves as minister and sheriff, and--a little too happily--as undertaker for the town, and after he finds the first victim, he must wrestle with the big existential questions. Quarantine the town and sacrifice everyone within the border, or let them flee and risk infecting the entire Midwest? Send his own family away to safety, or give them the same chance their neighbors have?

The rub is, no one has a chance. Not the town fool, not the town hermit, not the town hermit's pet ducks. It's a mercifully fast-moving virus, making for a mercifully slim novel. O' Nan has just a few pages to show off the research he did on Civil War-era small-town society, then he's deep into the embalming fluid. Only his gentle, musing prose style and mastery of the omniscient third-person narration saves this from being another Stephen King novel. Or perhaps because of its literary merits, A Prayer for the Dying might be thought of as an update of The Plague for fans of Cold Mountain.

In the midst of the gore and the grief, Jacob toils on in hallucinatory agony. If it weren't bad enough that everyone is dying, a forest fire is also roaring toward Friendship. And if that weren't enough, those pesky Civil War flashbacks start interfering with his daydreams. There's a crisis of self-doubt, too: Should he have done things differently? (Yes, everything.) Is it all his fault (Yes, partly.) And, most interesting, is he, as the town's kids liked to whisper, really crazy? Yes, he most definitely is.

Granted, too much time with the dead does strange things to the brain, and Jacob does quite a bit more than just pray over the corpses in his charge. But don't judge the man by his perversions; in the beginning, he just wanted to do the right thing.

 
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