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  • Writer's pictureSusan Edsall

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan
A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan

A Prayer for the Dying

by Stewart O'Nan

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan is on my Sacred Texts shelf. Wow what a book. Set just after the Civil War, the story takes place in Friendship, Wisconsin, a small town gripped by a mysterious, deadly epidemic. I hesitate to recommend it at this moment because maybe nobody wants to read about a community ravaged by a disease right now. But honestly, there is no better time. I read it a decade ago and still vividly remember the honor of his struggle. I picked it up again because the current circumstances in our country compelled me.

It's written in the second-person point of view, which is no small matter. I've never read a book written start to finish in the second person. It's the perfect choice. It gets you inside the head and heart of Jacob Hanson, the town's sheriff, preacher, and undertaker, and you intimately experience his mounting despair as he struggles to hold onto his faith and his sanity while he takes care of the living and the dead. Despite his unflagging effort and his deep faith in God, he is unable to save his family or his town. The story is harrowing and heartbreaking. And painfully human. In reviewing the book, Chuck Palahniuk called it “proof that God will do worse to test a faithful man than the devil would ever do to punish a sinner.”

At just under 200 pages you can read it in an easy day. But the book will stay with you for a long time.

Here are a few passages that illustrate the power of O'Nan's writing and the depth of the story.

“It doesn't seem enough, and as he starts them off, you want to call after him, tell him how you too question the ways of faith, the injustice, the never-ending losses, that it stuns you too, that you still grieve for Mrs. Goetz and Arnie and Eric Soderholm just as their families do, though everyone else seems to have forgotten. Lydia Flynn, the tramp behind Meyer's, the men in the swamps of Kentucky. If a sparrow fall, you want to say, it is not lost. I will remember. We are all saved.”

“If all of this has taught you anything, it's that hope is easier to get rid of than sorrow.”

“It's just a hard moment for him, a low point, not some soul-shaking crisis; you know those aren't sudden or public, they take years, worming inside you like a disease.”

“And even you, then, will wonder how you have such hope, and marvel at how impossible it is to stop the heart from reaching out into the whole world.”

Now that I think about it, there's no better time than now to read A Prayer for the Dying. Take a day. Skip the news. Read this book instead. Order A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan at your local bookstore. If, inexplicably, you have no local bookstore you can order it online at:


About Susan Edsall

Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >




“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.”

E.M. Forster

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