Review

A Prayer for the Dying: A Novel

by Stewart O'Nan

Friendship,
Wisconsin, is the setting that author Stewart O'Nan uses for his
novel, A PRAYER FOR THE DYING. The story revolves around the tough
decisions that Jacob Hansen must make. In addition to his
professional duties as constable, preacher, and mortician, his
personal ethical struggles confront him on a daily basis.

O'Nan develops the story in a present tense, second person voice;
that of Hansen. Once the reader adjusts to this unusual style, it
becomes an easy task to follow the carefully constructed words of
the writer. Because of the 'you' used to configure conversations
within himself, the character of Hansen becomes immediate and
tangible.  

A Civil War veteran, Hansen returns to Friendship and traverses the
town on a bicycle, fulfilling the offices of three jobs. Horseback
travel revolts him due to a bloody wartime experience. His past
life as a soldier haunts him in experiences that unfold throughout
the novel. O'Nan is a master of language when he reveals the
innermost thoughts, conflicts, and emotions of the complex main
character.

Upon a town farmer's discovery of a dead man, a traveler dressed in
soldier's garb, Hansen's duties as mortician are called into
service. Doc Guterson, the physician in Friendship, diagnoses the
cause of death to be diphtheria. When another death occurs, then
another, and the cause determined the same, Hansen and Doc declare
a quarantine --- no one can enter or leave the town limits. Doc has
foresight to send his wife away from Friendship prior to the
quarantine, but Hansen keeps his wife and tiny daughter at
home.

Hansen fights his own devils when the situation becomes desperate.
Called upon to uphold the law, serve the sick and dead and to
uplift spirits of the living, Hansen acts as harsh civil servant
and gentle benefactor. Contrasting realities bear deep burdens on
the man.

Because O'Nan delves into Hansen's soul in a forthright manner, A
PRAYER FOR THE DYING is a chilling treatise on the ravages of
diphtheria in the last century. Gruesome details of the disease and
its effects on a small society reveal chilling pictures of life in
America's near past.

The one man, as lawman, health department, and minister, chooses
actions consistent with his personality. One calamitous happening
follows another. Hansen witnesses death, love, religious fervor,
and loyal conviction within his town. When he lacks material for a
Sunday sermon, Hansen questions ideas of salvation, discipleship,
and morality deep within himself.

The best and the worst elements of humanity are graphically
displayed in O'Nan's writing. The author treats serious subjects as
day-to-day dilemmas that Hansen must face and he artfully allows
the reader to share the man's celebrations and tragedies. In fewer
than 200 pages, this book reads with the depth and emotion of a
much longer novel; strong words, used economically, make reading A
PRAYER FOR THE DYING an excellent choice.

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Reviewed by Judy Gigstad gigstadjudy@hotmail.com on January 22, 2011

A Prayer for the Dying: A Novel
by Stewart O'Nan

  • Publication Date: April 1, 2000
  • Genres: Fiction, General Fiction
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312255012
  • ISBN-13: 9780312255015