Stewart O'Nan

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A Prayer for the Dying

O'Nan, Stewart

Last Updated: Dec-21-1999
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


Jacob Hansen is sheriff, undertaker, and pastor in the little Wisconsin town of friendship. A Civil War veteran like many of the men in his town, he has seen many faces of death and knows how to balance compassion, prayer, and practicality in the presence of grief. When he recognizes a diphtheria epidemic as one after another the people of Friendship fall ill and die, he has to shoulder responsibility for protecting public health.

This means imposing and enforcing quarantine, extending even to the encampment of religious revivalists at the edge of town who mostly keep their distance and their own ways. Jacob's equanimity falters when his wife and baby daughter succumb; he keeps them alive in his mind and unburied for days, unable to acknowledge his own loss, though he helps others through theirs.

Finally he forces a passing railroad engineer to transport the survivors across the quarantine border into a neighboring town for safety, but the train is sabotaged, wrecked, and the fugitives killed. Jacob survives almost alone to return to what is now a ghost town and cope with the grim fate of survival.

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