Book of the Month, April: A Prayer For The Dying

We’re four months into 2020 and…well…Happy Quarantine!

I had intended to start a monthly book suggestion column way back there in January, but, as you can see, it didn’t happen.  What better time to start than during the recent plague?   What better novel to start with than Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer For The Dying?

Don’t let the title mislead you, this is a depressing book.  Sadly, it’s somewhat timely.  On the bright side, it’s also rather beautifully written.  If it matters, I don’t think any town today will go the way of Prayer‘s Friendship, Wisconsin.  Dear God, I hope not.

A Prayer For The Dying concerns the small town of Friendship, Wisconsin, and Jacob Hansen just after the Civil War.  Jacob is a veteran of the war between the states and he has not fully left behind the acts of violence he witnessed, or those he committed.  He’s trying to move on with his life, and for every way he’s still haunted by the past, he looks warmly to the future with his wife, Marta, and their infant daughter, Amelia.

In Friendship, Jacob pulls triple duty as sheriff, pastor, and undertaker (there’s a joke in there somewhere, but O’Nan made the wise choice not to tell it– leave it to those of lesser talent).  He is respected in the little town, and those neighboring it, although he does raise a few eyebrows by his choice of transportation:  due to an incident during the war, Jacob prefers to ride a bicycle to get wherever he goes.  He’s quirky, but he’s admired.

Jacob performs all his jobs to the best of his ability and he’s fully devoted to them, sometimes to the chagrin of his wife.  But it’s those trinity of jobs that puts Jacob on the front lines when tragedy befalls Friendship.

During a sweltering summer, the body of a former soldier is found in the woods.  On the same day Jacob is investigating the body and having it moved to the doctor’s for examination, he happens upon a sick woman from a local commune.  The doctor, known simply as Doc, soon delivers very bad news:  the soldier died of diphtheria, and the woman from the commune is sick with it, too.

Should the town be quarantined?  Would a quarantine incite mass panic?  At this point in history, diphtheria was a killer and it could spread like wildfire in communities.  Also, what about the wildfire that’s been burning up the countryside and is approaching Friendship?  Should the town be evacuated?

To quarantine or not to quarantine, that is the question.  Also to flee a wildfire and possibly spread disease to other towns.  Difficult decisions.

As the leader of the town, those decisions fall on Jacob’s shoulders.  Not to give too much away, but the right decisions, if there are any, aren’t always made.

A Prayer For The Dying is bleak, yes, and harrowing, but it is worth the time a reader will devote to its devastating emotions.  You may not come away from the book smiling, but you definitely won’t forget it.  It’s the kind of book that can haunt you.

Plus, at little more than two hundred pages, it was made for cozy “safer at home” days.