A PRAYER FOR THE DYING by Stewart O’Nan

A PRAYER FOR THE DYING

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KIRKUS REVIEW

O—Nan (A World Away, 1998, etc.) steps back in time and offers us a kind of Old West rendition of the Dance of Death as a diphtheria epidemic threatens to wipe out an entire town. Jacob Hansen is a man of many hats. A Civil War veteran, he has settled down to peacetime routines in Friendship, Wisconsin, where he does triple duty as preacher, sheriff, and mortician. Naturally, he prefers his role as pastor, but lately he’s been pretty busy in all three capacities: diphtheria has broken out in the little town, and it’s Jake’s responsibility to enforce a quarantine in the hope of checking its spread. This means completely cutting off Friendship from the outside world and keeping infected patients more or less boarded up in their own homes to die alone. And while the lawman in Jake sees the necessity of this step, his Christian sentiments rebel against such callousness. On the outskirts of Friendship a revival camp has been pitched by followers of a charismatic preacher named Chase, who has spent the last few months prophesying the imminent end of the world. When the disease infects their camp, Chase is not in the least surprised, nor does he become nonplused when word reaches town that a brushfire is raging out of control and seems headed directly for Friendship. Jake, however, is less willing to see the hand of God in the fire and pestilence surrounding him, especially after his baby daughter Amelia falls ill. “A man who’s lost only wants to go home . . . . Don—t those souls in Hell,” Jake asks, “lift their faces to Heaven?” The real question, though, is whether he and his family will be able to escape, since he finally decides that his fate is not to die in Friendship but to escape it alive—at any cost. Curiously slow and rather obsessively introspective, yet an extremely moving portrayal of faith and grief all the same.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8050-6147-9
Page count: 208pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1999




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