April 1999

Asking questions, finding few answers

By Stewart O'Nan
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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.

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