Friday, August 15, 2008


It’s not every day you read a book written in the second person singular, present tense. It’s even more rare for a writer to have the skill to write in this POV and actually pull it off, to make the narrator’s second person perspective appear seamless, and not jarring.

When Stewart O’Nan’s A PRAYER FOR THE DYING opens, all’s quiet in the aptly named rural
town: Friendship, Wisconsin. Jacob Hansen, a soldier fresh from the killing fields of the Civil War who is haunted by the ghastly things he had to do to survive returns home, only now he has three jobs. Describing his dual role as sheriff and undertaker, Hansen notes: “… you haven’t had much business of late, which is fine with you. Not that you mind earning your money, but when folks have need of you it’s someone’s misfortune one way or the other. The undertaking’s easy; being a constable is hard. When you put them together it can be too much, though that’s only
happened once since you’ve been back.”

There’s some nice hints that the town has seen its share of conflicts, but that’s nothing compared
to what lies ahead for Hansen, a modest, devout man who’s sometimes laughed at for being the town preacher as well as sheriff and undertaker: “Preach a little,” you said, trying not to sound proud. He really wasn’t interested, only joking, so you didn’t go into how you see all three as related, ways to give praise and thanks for this paradise. He wasn’t that kind of man – he would have laughed at you. Others around town do, some kiddingly. It’s all right. They’ll all come to you someday, and they know you’ll do right by them. It’s a contract, an honor, you tell them.”
Friendship’s my town, you say, and they think you’re a fool.”

In spite of the fact that he experiences the townspeople at their worst, Hansen constantly
strives to see the underlying good in everyone, to understand their motivation and forgive them their shortcomings, but when a diphtheria outbreak occurs, desperate and rebellious locals prove they’re capable of a whole new level of evil. It’s Hansen’s job as undertaker to risk exposure to the disease when he handles the dead, it’s his job as pastor to succor the dying and their families, but more so it’s his job as sheriff to enforce the quarantine and ensure that
nobody, not even those seemingly uninfected by the plague tries to escape.

But the disease isn’t limited to humans; it affects pets and live stock as well and some of the
most harrowing moments in this novel come from Hansen having to capture and burn the animals. When Hansen’s wife begs him to let her and their infant child flee the plague his role as husband and father, as protector of his family, come into conflict with his moral obligation as sheriff to not let anyone leave. How would it look, he asks, if he makes exceptions for some, even his own wife and child, but not others? His struggle with this and many other life-and-death decisions not only add to the suspense but constantly force the reader to stand in Hansen’s shoes
and ask themselves: What would I do?

I’ve said this before in other reviews: forcing your character into a rock-and-a-hard-place choice
is the most effective way to get the reader to connect emotionally with a character, to make
them want to turn the page.

Could it get any worse? Oh yes, and that’s one just one reason why this novel is such a standout.
The dry heat of summer that helped fueled the diphtheria outbreak has also spawned another disaster: a brushfire is raging in a nearby town, and it’s headed for Friendship. And worse, in the face of this impossible dilemma, Jacob falls victim to bouts of madness. The conflict ratchets up a hundred fold when the fire forces everyone, including Hansen, to flee the town, only they can’t
because they’re under quarantine.

Early on, Hansen contacts his friend and fellow sheriff in the next town over, Bart Cox, to help
enforce the quarantine, but when the brush fire consumes Friendship the only way to safety for Hansen and the remaining townsfolk who’ve been spared the plague’s death grip is past the very man Hansen authorized to not let anyone pass through. Hansen has two choices: kill a fellow officer and former soldier to gain passage, or turn back and face certain death for himself and the very people he’s responsible for. This has to be one of the most gripping, nail biting scenes I’ve
ever read, and it’s the culmination of an eminently satisfying and suspenseful novel..

In an interview, O’Nan said A PRAYER FOR THE DYING was inspired by Michael Lesy’s
historical montage WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, which documented a real-life diphtheria epidemic that swept through the region in the 1890s. “I ran into the book in a library somewhere, he said. “I read it and had this weird, queasy reaction to it, that gothic feeling of being terrified of and attracted by something at the same time. I thought, if I could get that
feeling into a book, into a piece of prose, that would be amazing.”

I would say he succeeded.