A Prayer for the Dying
By Stewart O'Nan
(Henry Holt and Co., Hardcover, 9780805061475, 195pp.)
Publication Date: April 1999
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Set in a leafy Wisconsin town just after the Civil War, A Prayer for the Dying opens harmlessly on a languid summer day; only slowly do events reveal themselves as sinister, blooming gently into a shared nightmare, as one neighbor after another succumbs to a creeping, always fatal disease. Our sole witness to this epidemic is Jacob Hansen, Friendship's sheriff, undertaker, and pastor. As the disease engulfs the town, Jacob must find a humane way to govern, as well as take care of his wife and baby daughter, though there seems no way to save those he loves short of calling a full quarantine and boarding up the sick in their houses. And what of the tramps slipping nightly through the tinder-dry woods, the spiritualists from the city camped on the edge of town with their charismatic leader Chase? Who-will bury the dead properly, if not Jacob?
Dark, poetic, and chilling, A Prayer for the Dying asks if it's possible to be a good man in a time of madness. It confirms what some readers have known all along: Stewart O'Nan is not merely one of the best young novelists in America, but one of the finest novelists of our time.