Dennis Hannan

Focusing on four main characters two Nazi and two Russian snipers David L. Robbins takes us into the opposing trenches of embattled Stalingrad, where The thought of being hunted through a telescopic sight, of being marked unknowingly with invisible black crosshairs and then selected for a bullet in the brain and instant death, was a chilling, ugly prospect. Through vivid, incisive narration and compelling interior monologues, we live with each of these two pairs of killers as they wait for their foe to make the fatal error.

Stalingrad's five months of horror begin on August 23, 1942, as over a million German forces advance and retreat, parry and thrust, with the 60 thousand Red Army troops within the city. In trenches and from the ruins of rat-infested buildings, the Russians' skilled assassin, Army Chief Master Sergeant Vasily Zaitsev and his assistant Tania Chernova, kill off a daily toll of enemy victims, including many a careless German officer. Impressed by Zaitsev's body count of Nazis, Red Army Colonel Nikolai Batyuk orders Zaitsev to recruit and train carefully selected sharpshooters for a sniper school; the members are soon making entries in their sniper journals. The Germans, aware of Zaitsev's phenomenal marksmanship through an article written for homefront consumption, quickly import their own expert sniper, SS Colonel Heinz Throvald, a suave, sophisticated opera-loving Berliner. His specific task? To kill Zaitsev! Of the four main characters, only Corporal Nikki Mond is completely fictional ( a composite German soldier, Robbins notes in his introduction); Zaitsev, Thorvald, and Tania Chernova were actual combatants at Stalingrad. Each one, as Tania and Zaitsev fall in love, or as Nikki soliloquizes, becomes known to us in often painful depth. On the bloody canvas that was Stalingrad, we live with the characters. And despite the grim horror of their deadly work, readers will care about and remember them.

Dennis J. Hannan lives in Wappingers Falls, New York.

Focusing on four main characters two Nazi and two Russian snipers David L. Robbins takes us into the opposing trenches of embattled Stalingrad, where The thought of being hunted through a telescopic sight, of being marked unknowingly with invisible black crosshairs and then selected for a bullet in the brain and instant death, was a […]

Six years after the end of the Civil War, Union veteran Jacob Hansen and his wife and baby daughter have settled into the small prairie town of Friendship, Wisconsin, where Jacob works at three jobs: constable, minister and undertaker. Jacob's enjoyment of the bright languid days of summer is quickly interrupted by the discovery of a corpse that of a stranger, another Union veteran, lying in a field outside of town. Almost immediately, Jacob encounters another stranger, a sick woman, writhing on the ground. Is she from the Colony, the cult group in the woods back of town? Doc Guterson's diagnosis is diphtheria, and so begins a tale told in spare, terse prose that finds Jacob's three professions demanding his leadership. This obligation will remind us of Job, and Camus, as death strikes Friendship again and again, yielding only to a forest fire that threatens to cleanse the horror of pestilence with its searing flames.

O'Nan metaphorically reflects Jacob's Civil War experiences in the present plague and quarantine: "The fire doesn't come in a line, a front of troops . . ." We are brought to identify with Jacob, past and present, as he questions his decisions and his relationship to God. As in his ministry, Jacob is ambivalent. Early on he observes, "It's when you're happiest, sure of your own strength, that you need to bow down and talk with God." You wonder if that is lax or fanatic. Later, things have to get better for Friendship. They're not idle wishes, not desperate yet . . . Surely at the very least there is mercy. And much later, "Is it true, after all you've preached, that you'd rather live a sinner than surrender to Him and be forgiven?" Your empathy for Jacob is also reinforced by O'Nan's use of the second-person point of view "you."

The author's economy of description is especially effective: "You go out on the sidewalk and squint into the afternoon. Take your bike and fly between the high fields. Hawks, sun, blue." A Prayer for the Dying is a demanding, breathtaking experience that you will finish reading with respect and appreciation.

 

Dennis J. Hannan lives in Wappingers Falls, New York.

Six years after the end of the Civil War, Union veteran Jacob Hansen and his wife and baby daughter have settled into the small prairie town of Friendship, Wisconsin, where Jacob works at three jobs: constable, minister and undertaker. Jacob's enjoyment of the bright languid days of summer is quickly interrupted by the discovery of […]

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