The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

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Kindle Edition, 257 pages

Published: September 1, 1991 by Harper Collins

Setting: Northern New York

Recommended By: Drew at A Fistful of Films

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On a frigid winter day, a school bus veers off the road, plows through a guardrail, and crashes through the ice into a water-filled sandpit. Fourteen children are killed. Before the impact of the tragedy settles on this small rural community, tort lawyers swoop in on parents of kids killed or injured in the accident. This has a toxic effect on the already fractured community. Mitchell Stephens is one of these attorneys.

He isn’t drawn primarily by the allure of money, but he hasn’t persuaded himself that he’s actually helping grieving parents either.

I’m under no delusions — I know that in the end a million-dollar settlement makes no real difference to them, that it probably only serves to sharpen their pain by constricting it with legal language and rewarding it with money, that it complicates the guilt they feel and forces them to question the authenticity of their own suffering.

He has vague philosophical reasons for pursuing tort cases like this, and he loves the carnage of legal battle and the thrill of victory. But, above all, he’s driven by his own fiery rage, fury that immures the intractable grief left by his own journey through fatherhood.

Mitchell is one of four compelling point-of-view characters. Dolores Driscoll, the driver of the ill-fated school bus, passionately in love with her husband of twenty years, who’s been disabled by a stroke. Billy Ansel, Vietnam veteran, widower, and bereaved father. And Nichole Burnell, a cheerleader injured in the accident and struggling with painful secrets. Banks accomplished something which, as a writer, I find challenging: creating four distinct and equally compelling narrative voices.

Each of these characters is portrayed with empathy and raw honesty. The story is shaped from interior monologue, seamlessly combined with narrative, and bright slivers of gorgeous imagery. The descriptive detail is spare and perfect, developing the mood of the novel and imprinting the setting indelibly in my brain. The town of Sam Dent — in the harsh, beautiful wilderness of Northern New York, near the Canadian border — is a character in its own right. In the summer months, it is claimed by tourists. Throughout the rest of the year, it’s sparsely populated by the locals, most of whom live in poverty.

Up here, though, the poor are kept out, and it’s the rich who stay inside the fence and only in the summer months … patched-together houses with flapping plastic over the windows and sagging porches and woodpiles and rusting pickup trucks and junker cars parked in front, boarded-up roadside diners and dilapidated motels that got bypassed by the turnpike that Rockefeller built for the downstate Republican tourists and the ten-wheeler truckers lugging goods between New York City and Montreal.

The core of The Sweet Hereafter, of course, is its study of grief, which is carefully observed, unsettling, and unflinchingly honest. As this novel navigates the blurred line between the living and the dead, it doesn’t offer tangible comfort. This story doesn’t have any easy answers about grief, which is, for many of us, a lifelong journey and, for some people, is utterly debilitating. However, one character finds unprecedented strength in her losses and, for better or worse, shifts the course of the story. And we’re left with the sense that several other characters have found, if not redemption, at least a path forward.
This is a gorgeous, vibrant, honest novel by a masterful author. Its journey through grief, sense of place, and brilliant use of narrative voice and characterization make it unforgettable.

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3 thoughts on “The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

  1. “The core of The Sweet Hereafter, of course, is its study of grief, which is carefully observed, unsettling, and unflinchingly honest.” Yes! I love this book, this author, and Atom Egoyan’s film of this novel. Sarah Polley will break your heart in that thing. So great. Awesome post! And your site is looking great!

    Liked by 1 person

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