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A Prayer for the Dying: A Novel

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    Available in PDF - DJVU Format | A Prayer for the Dying: A Novel.pdf | Language: ENGLISH
    Stewart O'Nan(Author)

    Book details

A compelling tale that builds in a steady subtle climb to horror chronicles the strange arrival of a deadly epidemic in a post-Civil War Wisconsin town, as sheriff Jacob Hansen tries to maintain order. 22,500 first printing. Tour.

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. If there were any doubt of his protean gifts on the basis of his four previous, singularly different novels (A World Away, etc.), O'Nan again proves himself a writer of dazzling virtuosity and imagination. This eloquent horror tale/philosophical fable is yet another of his narratives in which character and fate intertwine in a situation of moral gravity. Narrator Jacob Hansen (who speaks to himself in the third person: "You can feel the past oozing up like mud") is a psychologically scarred Civil War veteran. Shortly after the end of the conflict, he has settled with his wife and baby daughter in the tiny prairie town of Friendship, Wis., which is now in the midst of a spectacularly beautiful summer?and a troubling drought. Jacob has three jobs?as undertaker, constable and minister?and a crushing, somewhat eerie sense of responsibility for all of the citizens of Friendship. His feverish piety and his repeated declarations of faith are gradually revealed as thin coverings over a bottomless well of despair. When three deaths from diphtheria occur in quick succession, Jacob convinces his wife not to leave town with the baby, even as he is passively fatalistic about their slim chances of escaping infection. After both Marta and the baby die, Jacob becomes unhinged; he keeps their bodies in the house, dressing, washing and sleeping with them. Outwardly, however, he doggedly continues to go about his duties, rendered even more frantic as the epidemic escalates, a quarantine is belatedly imposed, and many of the townspeople try to steal away during the night. Meanwhile, a wildfire is moving implacably toward the area, and the serene summertime landscape turns into a version of hell as the sky darkens and the air is heavy with ashes. Even as he commits acts of violence under the duress of duty, Jacob muses that this may be the reckoning described in biblical prophecy: the world cleansed by pestilence and fire. Indeed, Jacob is a version of Job, although he never challenges God but questions his own culpability in failing to keep his world whole and peaceful. O'Nan does a superb job of establishing the faint sense of menace that grows into a horrifying nightmare of random destruction and death. Outside of a few red-herring details, the narrative moves with surefooted technique into the realm of sinister gothic mystery. Profoundly unsettling, it requires a leap of faith from the reader that may, like Jacob's faith, fail at times, but it is a mesmerizing story and a brilliant tour de force. Author tour. Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Book details

  • PDF | 195 pages
  • Stewart O'Nan(Author)
  • Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (April 12, 1999)
  • English
  • 5
  • Literature & Fiction

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Review Text

  • By LawtonC ATX on November 27, 2016

    Don't buy this book if you aren't interested in reading something on the darker side. There are definitely at least a few scenes that are going to make you cringe. The purpose of these scenes, however, isn't to make you turn in disgust just for the fun of it. O'Nan is a masterful story-teller, and every cringe-worthy moment is included to shape the narrative and build his main character.This book definitely has more of a slow build to it, but the last fifty pages just sort of unfurl, and the experience I had was finishing it before I was ready. Again and again, the book just sort of nails you with something unexpected, but again, not surprising with no purpose. The story unfolds organically, and I was swept away by it.This book is great because of how authentic it feels and the interesting human elements it explores. It feels true to the time-period, but doesn't rely on that for entertainment. It looks at faith, emotional endurance, and man's ability to overcome terrible past experiences, which are all pretty heavy topics to explore. Combine that with the high stakes of the sickness in this small town and the main character's position as sheriff and undertaker, and you get a fascinating book that grips you for two hundred pages or so. You're there when he makes some really tough decisions and some really questionable ones, and you feel sort of emotionally drained when it's all said and done, the way any emotionally gripping book leaves you if you've taken the time to really explore it.

  • By Dave Schwinghammer on July 28, 2009

    Stewart O'Nan is one of the most versatile writers I've ever read. The first book of his that I read, LAST NIGHT AT THE LOSTER, was so realistic it read like non-fiction. A PRAYER FOR THE DYING is nothing like it, unless you count the moral choices the two lead characters are faced with.In A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, Civil War veteran Jacob Hansen, or Crazy Jake as he calls himself, is faced with a diphtheria epidemic. Jake is a combination town constable, undertaker, and preacher. It's his job to dispose of the bodies and to keep the living in line as well as provide spiritual guidance. Jake is tested almost as much as Job in the Bible. When his wife and daughter take sick, he's tempted to drown himself in the bottle, but he knows the town needs him. A young man is stationed on the boundary line between his small Wisconsin town of Friendship and the town next to it. Jake warns him not to kill anyone, only to be faced with the same choice himself when a nearby lawman and fellow Civil War veteran confronts him. And to make matters worse there's a forest fire baring down on Friendship. Can it get much worse? Well, yes, it can. This is the second time Jake has been faced with a life or death situation. He almost starved to death during a siege while in the army and had to resort to cannibalism to survive. He became a preacher because he promised God he'd devote his life to him if he survived.A PRAYER FOR THE DYING is written in the second person, which gets a bit old but by using "you" instead of "I", O'Nan reminds us that we're in the same boat as the principal character, faced with similar choices only not on such a large scale.My great-grandfather lost his first wife and his entire family to a diphtheria epidemic, so I could relate to this book perhaps more than most. It even happened right around the same time, shortly after the Civil War, only they died during the winter and he had to keep them in the icehouse because the ground was too hard to shovel. When reviewers call this a gripping novel, they're not exaggerating.

  • By Raymond H. Mullen on November 29, 2014

    Sometimes I read a book and then wonder "Why?" This story fits into that category quite well. Take an undertaker, sheriff and preacher (same guy). Add a devastating fire and a deadly contagious disease. Put all this into a small town. Add a large portion of madness, and confusion. There you have it. A book that basically has no beginning, no end and not much in between. Right up to the last page, I searched for a plot but alas, it eluded me. At times, I leave my usual genre just to explore something new. Sometimes, it's a new adventure down a different path, but in this case it was a path to nowhere.

  • By Scott E Weaver on October 24, 2012

    As the writer of [...]I know what its like to write in the past and I've got to say this is a great period piece that takes place right after the Civil War. The main character is a soldier that has recently come home and is now the town sheriff, undertaker, and pastor of the town. Before he can even really get comfortable with his new positions, a horrid plague comes to town, killing people left and right. Not only is this a terrifyingly good book, the author wrote it in second person, which is a phenomenally difficult feat for a writer. Most don't have the stones to even toy around with second person narratives, but O'Nan pulls it off beautifully.

  • By Grady Harp on February 17, 2002

    Stewart O'Nan continues to gather momentum in establishing himself as one of the master writers of our time. His novel THE NAMES OF THE DEAD revealed insights into the Vietnam tragedy like few others have matched. He is able to explore the interstices of human behaviour and response to unthinkable tragedy with such clinical precision that at times his stories must be read again to take note of the eloquent lyricism of his writing gifts.A PRAYER FOR THE DYING is in ways a metaphor for the Christ figure: one man is sent to absorb all the sins of the world, knowing that the end will be his own sacrifice/loss. Jacob Hansen strolls through his war-injured life as a constable/minister/undertaker in a small town of Friendship, WI post Cival War time. Gradually that stroll becomes a march toward the evils of diphtheria and a ravaging fire until the march becomes a race toward the inevitable destruction of all that is dear to him. Cosmic tragedy consumes him and it is this process where we find the heroism of the indomitable spirit. In Jacob's own words "If all of this has taught you anything, its that hope is easier to get rid of than sorrow." This book is small in size, short in pages, but overwhelmingly important in content. Here is a study in perspective for the harrowing times in which we now live.

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