Posted in A Prayer for the Dying, discussion, Stewart O'Nan

Our Book for November and December – A Prayer for the Dying

After an email exchange or two, Julie and I have decided that our next book for discussion group is The Librarium discussion group is A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan.

I found this book to be both powerful and disturbing at the same time. Written in the second person, the novel puts you squarely in the shoes of the protagonist, a place that is hard to be in at times. The novel asks questions about love and faith. In particular, where God is in times of tragedy. offers this synopsis:

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.

An ostensibly injured Civil War veteran, Jacob watches helplessly as his neighbors in tiny Friendship, Wisconsin, are stricken with disease: simply hearing a mother say of her daughter, “She’s sick,” becomes chilling. Yet even as his wife and baby fall ill, Jacob patiently, dutifully tends to the helpless and buries the dead. When panic erupts, however, and he grapples with the tragedies accumulating before him, he feels the prick of spiritual doubt, even succumbs to violence. “Is this the devil’s work?” Jacob asks as he struggles to discern the good in a world without order, watches those he serves turn against him, and disregards his own moral outrage.

O’Nan’s style is taut and often oddly lovely, its immediacy braced by an unnerving second-person voice. The novel is, at root, spiritually terrifying. It forces us to consider at what remove we truly are from evil. Overwhelmed with checking his own despair, Jacob begins by pondering how to halt wickedness and ineluctably finds himself sustaining its slow creep. You wonder if he ever had a prayer. –Ben Guterson

A Prayer for the Dying can be purchased from or its affiliates for as less than $1.00 (plus shipping and handling). To order, just click on this link.

I hope some of you will join Julie and I in reading and discussing this intriguing book in the coming weeks. I will be posting some more thoughts and discussion starters sometime next week. In the meantime, get the book and start reading : )

To read a review of this book on the The New York Times website, as well as read the first chapter of the book, you can go here (you may have to register for the site, but it is painless, and then you have access to the Times for all of their other news, reviews, etc. . . as well).

Here is what other reviewers have had to say about A Prayer for the Dying:

“A cross between Steven Crane and Stephen King…O’Nan is certainly among the strongest American writers of his generation.”–Peter McCarthy, The Washington Post Book World

“A fine, terse novel about the circumstantial nature of evil and the terrible fragility of man.”–Patrick McGrath, The New York Times Book Review

“A sad and chilling novel…It will make readers shudder and think and marvel at a writer’s creation of an alien world that seems so real.–Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

“This urgent, economically told novel grabs you at the start and never lets up. O’Nan’s novel is beautiful testimony to profound truths.”–Dan Cryer, Newsday

“A gripping work of raw power…[A Prayer for the Dying] is a rare piece of fiction–viscerally real and wholly discomfiting, but a work so frightfully well done that it must be read.”–Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post


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