Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “A Prayer for the Dying” as Want to Read:
A Prayer for the Dying
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

A Prayer for the Dying

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  2,657 ratings  ·  406 reviews
New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year

"A new masterpiece of American literature." --Dennis Lehane, Entertainment Weekly

"A Prayer for the Dying reads like the amazing, unrelenting love child of Shirley Jackson and Cormac McCarthy. It's twisted proof that God will do worse to test a faithful man than the devil would ever do to punish a sinner." --Chuck Palah
Paperback, 195 pages
Published May 26th 2009 by St. Martins Press-3PL (first published 1999)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about A Prayer for the Dying, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about A Prayer for the Dying

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.99  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,657 ratings  ·  406 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of A Prayer for the Dying
Dec 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: icky-sex
this book is like boiling milk. at first, everything is nice and serene - a calm pool of pure silken whiteness. and then it starts to shimmer a little bit and you know things are happening, and you start to notice little bloopy bits of activity, but you don't want to stir it just yet. steam starts to rise from it, and it is almost magical, like tiny milk-ghosts. and then - bubbles! one or two at first, and then so many, too many to even play milk whack-a-mole with. and then - rolling boil! look ...more
Jan 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone
Recommended to Lawyer by: Jeffrey Keeten
Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying, A Reminiscence for the Living

It is slightly after 12:30 a.m. But I am not sleeping. I have just completed A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan. Rarely have I read a novel that I am compelled to review immediately upon completing it. But this is one.

Much has gone on in my personal life since a killer tornado passed through our town, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 27th. Shortly afterward, my mother developed a serious case of pneumonia. Although the pneumo
Nov 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This very bleak but beautifully written novel ( a novella, really).. by Stewart O'Nan takes place in the time period following the end of the Civil War in Friendship, Wisconsin. Jacob Hansen has just returned from the war and is struggling to fit back into the town that he loves. Jacob is Friendship's sheriff, undertaker and pastor; and he takes all of those roles very seriously. He is married to Marta and they have a baby girl, Amelia. The two are the anchor in Jacob's life. The story is told t ...more
J. Kent Messum
My God, Stewart O'Nan has to be the most underrated writer in the world. I cannot fathom how his talent is not more widely recognized.

Sure, plenty of people know about him, but nowhere near the number he deserves. He's an absolute beast of a novelist, one who exhibits total control of his craft. A gifted writer, master storyteller, and brilliant imagination all rolled into one; an author who has such an uncanny ability to get under your skin, that he can actually wear you with a book like 'A Pr
May 07, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary-fiction
There are times you don’t like something, but can’t really put your finger on the reason. Take Mexican food. No matter how well it is prepared, how fresh the ingredients, or how wonderful the recipe, it’s all pretty average to me. You can place before me the finest Mexican feast in all the land, and I will respond with a resounding meh. And to the consternation of my wife, who loves Mexican food, I can’t explain the reason why. The other night, I went with some friends to a popular new Mexican p ...more
Feb 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It's a bleak book but it's Stewart O'Nan so 4.5 Stars. ...more
Mike Puma
Jan 19, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012

The paperback cover carries a blurb: “A cross between Stephen Crane and Stephen King.” Maybe. It is a post-Civil War tale in that the protagonist is haunted by his memories of the war, memories that are revealed slowly, then differently. (It’s challenging to write about this one without revealing spoilers—and there’s no good reason to spoil a really good story). But I’ll come back to that quote.

It’s told in the second–person, a perspective that requires some accommodation. (Did you know you surv

Apr 29, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“Where do your responsibilities stop? Sometimes you have to choose.” ~ Jacob Hansen

“Jake” Hansen, a Union veteran of the United States Civil War, now serves as undertaker, constable and part-time preacher in Friendship, Wisconsin, “a dying old lead town.” The word “dying” takes on enormous significance in this small prairie outpost when a young homeless soldier is found facedown beside a campfire, dead without a scratch. A woman, ranting and frothing, is soon found lying in the stubble by the ro
It is short. It will grab you by the neck and pull you under. Readitreaditreadit. I want that to be my whole review but I'm a wordy bitch, so here goes:

When things go bad, how do you know they don't go bad because of you and not just in spite of you (or your efforts)? And when things go bad, so bad that you aren't sure any more what goodness is or was, does that first question even matter? And if it doesn't matter, why make an effort?

If questions like these make you want to steer the kayak of yo
Jason Howl
Mar 19, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The beginning is like watching a fuse burn. The rest was an explosion of death and fire. Not bad.
Jacob Hansen is a civil war veteran and the sheriff, pastor and undertaker of the small town of Friendship. On an ordinary summer day people begin to fall ill, first one, then more. Jacob watches his beloved town unravel as diphtheria takes hold while a fire simultaneously bears down on Friendship. He struggles to balance his various roles in the town, as well as that of husband and father, as he faces these twin challenges. There is a very calm, subtle, matter-of-fact tone to this book which so ...more
My first experience with Stewart O'Nan and not entirely sure what to expect. My knowledge of him is sparse: He grew up here in Pittsburgh and went on to write about the Red Sox with Stephen King and is often compared to Flannery O'Connor, Edgar Allan Poe and Shirley Jackson, all of which piqued my interest and helped convince me to pick up a book of his.

Postbellum Friendship, Wisconsin - Jacob Hansen is the town's constable, undertaker and pastor as his town is threatened by two simultaneous dan
Diane Barnes
Nov 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I finished this book last night, but tired as I was, could not sleep for thinking about it. There are several lifetimes packed into these 195 pages. Jacob is the sherriff, undertaker and minister to the small town of Friendship, Wisconsin. The Civil War has been over for 6 years, but his memories of the dead and dying persist. His life is a good one, with a loving wife and 6 month old daughter, the respect of his townspeople, and a sense of responsibility for their care and protection.

Then a dip
Jun 16, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is mind-blowingly awesome. Written in the disconcerting second-person voice, the book finds its spiritually-conflicted preacher/sheriff/mortician facing the apocalypse of his world. Weaving together scraps of the protagonist's Civil war memories with his current situation of disease and raging fire, the book grabs the reader for a terrifying ride and does not let go, not even after the story has ended. ...more
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
Another excellent pandemic reading material.

Set in a town called Friendship in Wisconsin, USA just after the Civil War, the principal protagonist, Jacob Hansen, was a former soldier who is now the town’s Sheriff (so he carries a gun and maintains peace and order), Undertaker (so he fixes the dead for burial and consoles the grieving) and Deacon (so he reads the Bible and delivers the sermons during worship days). He has a wife, Martha, and they have a baby daughter, Amelia, who is a delight to t
Jim Breslin
Apr 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is the novel written for pandemic reading. I'd read it years ago and kept thinking of it during this Coronavirus quarantine, so re-read it. Set in the late 1800s, the constable of a Wisconsin village, who also happens to be the local undertaker and minister, is notified of a dead man in the woods. Shortly after, it becomes clear that Diptheria killed the man and has stricken several people in the village, including the constable's family. One of the unique parts about this short novel is th ...more
Colin McKay Miller
Mar 15, 2011 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: Southern Gothic fans (like Vincent Louis Carrella's Serpent Box)
Shelves: novels
Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying may be praised by the literary community, but it’s nothing but dead pages full of dead words to me.

Jacob Hansen has recently stepped out of the Civil War and into juggling several roles (that of preacher, sheriff and undertaker) in the small town of Friendship, Wisconsin. However, Friendship soon finds itself trapped in a Catch-22, where they should stay quarantined due to a diphtheria epidemic, yet should be fleeing from the great incoming fire. Jacob str
May 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: life-changers
This is likely my favorite novel of all time. I'm currently on my fourth time through, and it gets better every time.
I've seen a lot of reviews that address the second person narrative in this text. Apparently, some find it difficult to follow. However, I did not. In fact, I found it to be one of the strengths of O'Nan's writing. It is not truly second person - rather, first person perspective using second person pronouns. (Instead of "I", he uses "you")
I think this is particularly effective as
~ Cheryl ~
I expect to be haunted by this book.

It is brilliantly written, but it is dark. I suppose a story about a town that finds itself in the grip of an epidemic couldn’t be otherwise.

Stewart O’Nan wrote this story in second-person perspective. I can’t think of anything I’ve read in second-person POV, besides Choose Your Own Adventure when I was 12. (Of course, A Prayer for the Dying is not a corny kids’ adventure, and “you” are not meant to be the main character here.) I had thought this stylistic c
May 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anti vaccination nuts
Recommended to Lizzie by: karen
You know it's not going to be a feel-good book of the year when the credit page says "The author would like to acknowledge his great dept to Michael Levy, whose Wisconsin Death Trip inspired this book." That happens to be one of my favorite books, and there has been an armed tramp and suicide by Paris green, but now it's feeling so real it's scary. I like the characters and I fear for them.

I'm thinking about what else to say about why I liked this so much. It starts out slow and builds fast, lik
lucky little cat
O'Nan follows the trail of a 19th-century pandemic (diphtheria) from patient zero to its conclusion as it cuts a swath through a tiny Midwestern town. The author focuses on the town's straight-arrow sheriff as he tries to save even a small piece of his town. Gripping, timely, and tragic. Not for the squeamish, the sick, nor those grieving. ...more
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Mar 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to Lisa (Harmonybites) by: The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Ultimate Reading List; Gerri
This is the kind of novel you end a little stunned. I have a friend whose literary tastes I greatly respect, a gifted writer herself, who raved about O'Nan to me--this is the first novel of his I've ever read, but won't be the last. She actually gave me her copy of this book when I mentioned I couldn't find it in stores. It was recommended in a horror recommendation list, and my friend expressed surprise it would be thought of that way.

Having now read it I understand what she means. Inside a blu
Oct 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read this novel in 1999 and it has haunted me ever since. At the time, I was working in an independent bookstore - yes, best job of my life - so I read a store copy. I've periodically wracked my brain for the title or the author so I could read it again. A very lengthy keyword search tonight (e.g., epidemic+rural+America) finally lead me to goodreads, and there it was at last. My order has been placed and I can't wait to reread it. I wonder if I'll feel the same utter devastation by the end. ...more
Apr 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
Superb and apt in a time of coronavirus. Rating: [4.5*]
Dec 15, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A pastoral gothic that I couldn’t quite step into with that mindless participation that’s needed for the full horror to absorb one’s disbelief. I think it was because it was written in the second person. There’s a reason the second person is seldom used. It’s tricky. I suppose O’Nan used it to make it seem as if the reader, the you, was a full participant in the events. The effect it had on me was to distance me. I knew I wasn’t the mortician of that town, therefore how could the book be speakin ...more
May 05, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: eschatology, horror
I'm very glad that I read Wisconsin Death Trip before reading this novel. It's like a macabre vignette from the earlier book. O'Nan has a spare style that lends itself well to the isolation and simple lifestyle in Friendship. As people start to fall sick from diptheria, you get the impression that the world really IS ending. Even though there were other towns close by, the community of Friendship (or any community from the time period) was so close-knit that nothing will remain when everything d ...more
This is my second attempt with O'Nan, and I can't get into him. He writes wonderfully, but perhaps to a fault. The present tense and second-person POV seemed too much like stunts. I couldn't get very interested in the character because I sensed the author intruding every chance he got. The plot was dark and I liked the story's progression and the added suspsense of the fire, but ultimately didn't care enough about the characters to generate too much interest. ...more
Aug 06, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Beautifully written, very interesting, extremely depressing. It is still haunting me a few days later. I give it a good rating, but it was so upsetting that I'm not sure I should recommend reading it. ...more
Dec 30, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What a grim, but compelling story... with a good little twist. So very well written - O'Nan definitely has talent. Small little page-turner. ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Watches and Warnings
  • Harleen
  • Jack
  • The End of October
  • Nothing More Dangerous
  • The Way I Heard It
  • Howl
  • Companions of the Night
  • Bloodline (Bloodline, #1)
  • Reckoning (Bloodline, #2)
  • Whale Day: And Other Poems
  • Travel Light, Move Fast
  • 1919 (U.S.A., #2)
  • The Last Town on Earth
  • The Memory Monster
  • Barnacle Is Bored
  • It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump
  • Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss
See similar books…
Stewart O'Nan is the author of eleven novels, including Snow Angels and A Prayer for the Dying, a story collection, and two works of nonfiction. His previous novel, Last Night at the Lobster, was a national bestseller, was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was named one of the New York Public Library Books to Remember. Additionally, Granta named him one of the 20 Best Young Ameri ...more

Related Articles

  Whether you love the horror genre or just tiptoe into it ahead of Halloween, we have book picks for every level of scared you want to...
447 likes · 282 comments
“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.” 1 likes
“There's nothing to do. You've been in the business long enough to understand grief. That's the awful thing: there is nothing to do but go on. You don't want to, you don't want to leave the loved one behind, but you do. Death's taught you that much at least.” 1 likes
More quotes…