Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

This is a marvelous little book that uses four different narrators to explore the dark and painful repercussions that come with the loss of innocence. On the surface, the innocence in question is the lives of fourteen children from a small town called Sam Dent, who are killed in a school bus accident, but roiling away under the surface are the irrevocable thoughts and fears of our four narrators.

The first is Dolores Driscoll, a woman with grown children and a husband who has trouble speaking because of a stroke, who drove the bus in question, swerving to avoid what she would swear was a stray dog and rolling the bus into the winter countryside. Dolores is a keen observer of children--those she raised and those she drives to school each day…

By now there was some noise in the bus, the early morning sounds of children practicing at being adults, making themselves known to one another and to themselves in their small voices (some of them not so small)--asking questions, arguing, making exchanges, gossiping, bragging, pleading, courting, threatening, testing--doing everything we ourselves do, the way puppies and kittens at play mimic grown dogs and cats at work. It’s not altogether peaceful or sweet, any more than the noises adults make are peaceful and sweet, but it doesn’t do any serious harm. And because you can listen to children without fear, the way you can watch puppies tumble and bite and kittens sneak up on one another and spring without worrying that they’ll be hurt by it, the talk of children can be very instructive. I guess it’s because they play openly at what we grownups do seriously and in secret.

The second is Billy Ansel, a Vietnam veteran and widower, raising two kids on his own, and involved with Risa Walker, a married woman in town as miserable as he after all their children are killed in the accident. Billy’s a keen observer, too; not so much of children, but of the fate that awaits them and us all...

The way we deal with death depends on how it’s imagined for us beforehand, by our parents and the people who surround them, and what happens to us early on. And if we believed properly in death--the way we actually do believe in taxes, for instance--and did not insist on thinking that we had it beat, we might never have had a Vietnam war. Or any war. Instead, we believe the lie, that death, unlike taxes, can be postponed indefinitely, and we spend our lives defending that belief. Some people are very good at it, and they become our nation’s heroes. Some, like me, for obscure reasons, see the lie early for what it is, fake it for a while and grow bitter, and then go beyond bitterness what? To this, I suppose Cowardice. Adulthood.

The third is Mitchell Stephens, Esquire, a lawyer from the big city, who comes to the small town after hearing of the accident to bring the only kind of justice he believes can come out of such a tragedy. Mitch, too, is a keen observer. His specialty is human nature and the system it can’t help build and which is forever beyond its control...

But anytime I hear about a case like that school bus disaster up there, I turn into a heat-seeking missile, homing in on a target that I know in my bones is going to turn out to be some bungling corrupt state agency or some multinational corporation that’s cost-accounted for the difference between a ten-cent bolt and a million-dollar out-of-court settlement and has decided to sacrifice a few lives for the difference. They do that, work the bottom line; I’ve seen it play out over and over again, until you start to wonder about the human species. They’re like clever monkeys, that’s all. They calculate ahead of time what it will cost them to assure safety versus what they’re likely to be forced to settle for damages when the missing bolt sends the bus over a cliff, and they simply choose the cheaper option. And it’s up to people like me to make it cheaper to build the bus with that extra bolt, or add the extra yard of guardrail, or drain the quarry. That’s the only check you’ve got against them. That’s the only way you can ensure moral responsibility in this society. Make it cheaper.

And the fourth is Nichole Burrell, one of the most popular teenagers in town, a survivor of the bus crash, now confined to a wheelchair, and a girl with a dark and unspeakable secret.

Back then, though, with Jennie sound asleep in the bunk above me, I used to lie awake at night thinking up ways to kill myself. Dying was the only way I could imagine the end of what I was doing with Daddy, although sometimes I imagined that he had suddenly decided to leave me alone, because weeks would go by, whole months, when he did leave me alone, when he just acted regular, and I thought then that maybe he had decided that what he was making me do with him was wrong, really wrong, and he was sorry and wouldn’t come to me anymore when we were alone in the house or in the car and touch me and make me touch him.

Needless to say, Nichole is a keen observer, too. In her circumstance she has come to understand the imperviousness of our outer lives, and how the pain that lies beneath them, however sordid and nasty, when never mentioned, has no power to affect them.

It is through these four narrators, then, that we see the story Banks is telling--see both the plot and its details, as well as the meaning and implications of these events on the people themselves. They form an interesting quartet, their lives and story lines intersecting in the narrative, especially as the lawsuit that Mitch is determined to bring to this small town begins to create deep divides that almost no one is able to cross.

Mitch and Billy are stark opposites in this story--the lawyer convinced that someone, somewhere is to blame for this horrible accident, and the Vietnam veteran believing just as fervently that no one is to blame, that it was, in essence, an unforeseeable event that no one brought about.

Billy’s perspective is clearly colored by his past experiences--Vietnam and the death of his wife, Lydia, among them--and he has achieved a certain fatalism that seems to make the search for both proximate and ultimate causes superfluous.

Desperately, we struggled to arrange the event in our minds so that it made sense. Each of us in his own way went to the bottom and top of his understanding in search of a believable explanation, trying to escape this huge black nothingness that threatened to swallow our world whole. I guess the Christians in town, and there are a lot of them, got there first, at least the adults did, and I’m glad for them, but I myself could not rest there, and I believe that secretly most of them could not, either. To me, the religious explanation was just another sly denial of the facts. Not as sly, maybe, as insisting that the accident was actually not an accident, that someone--Dolores, the town, the state, someone--had caused it; but a denial nonetheless. Biology doesn’t matter, the Christians argued, because this body we live in is not ultimately real; history doesn’t matter, they said, because God’s time is different and superior to man’s anyhow; and forget cause and effect, forget what you’ve been told about the physical world, because there is heaven and there is hell and there is this green earth in between, and you are always alive in one of the three places.

I was raised, like most folks in Sam Dent, with a Christian perspective, and I remember it well: they made no bones about it. Billy, they said, there is no such thing as death. Just everlasting life. Isn’t that great? That was the bottom line, whether you were Protestant like me and Lydia or Catholic like half of the other folks in town. But when I was nineteen and went to Vietnam, I was still young enough to learn something new, and the new thing was all this dying that I saw going on around me. Consequently, when I came home from Vietnam, I couldn’t take the Christian line seriously enough even to bother arguing with it. To please Lydia and the kids, I went to church a couple of times a year, but the rest of the time I stayed home and read the Sunday paper. Then Lydia died, and the Christian perspective came to seem downright cruel to me, because I had learned that death touched everyone. Even me. I stopped going to church altogether.

I still believed in life, however--that it goes on, in spite of death. I had my children, after all. And Risa. But four years later, when my son and daughter and so many other children of this town were killed in the accident, I could no longer believe even in life. Which meant that I had come to be the reverse, the opposite, of a Christian. For me, now, the only reality was death.

While Mitch, on the other hand, is driven to view everything from a decidedly deterministic point of view. So driven, in fact, that he--knowingly or not--will create the determinism that he feeds on if it isn’t readily apparent.

I took off my gloves, stuck my hand out, and said my name; he accepted my hand limply into his and let me shake the thing, as if it were an ear of corn. The guy’s gone, I thought, he’s off with his kid. I hoped his wife would turn out to be the angry one.

Usually, that’s all you need. The angry partner carries the defeated partner, who hasn’t then energy to argue against even the idea of a suit, let alone the actuality, which of course, once it’s under way, provides its own momentum. You do need one of them fueled by anger, however, especially in the beginning; two defeated parties tend to reinforce each other’s lassitude and make lousy litigants. The attorney often ends up fighting his own clients, especially near the end, when it gets down to dealing out the last cards, and the out-of-court settlement offers get made and refused. I wanted a mean lean team, a troop of vengeful parents willing to go the route with me and not come home without some serious trophies on our spears.

He’s done this before, you see. Invading a small community that has experienced a horrible tragedy, and manipulating people into creating the reality by which he understands the world and justifies his role in it. He is, in fact, a bit of a psychopath in this regard.

Nothing else provides me with the rush that I get from cases like this. There is a brilliant hard-edged clarity that comes over me when I take on a suit for the Ottos and the Walkers of the world, an intensity and focus that makes me feel more alive then than at any other time.

It’s almost like a drug. It’s probably close to what professional soldiers feel, or bullfighters. The rest of the time, like most people, I muddle lonely through my days and nights feeling unsure, vaguely confused, conflicted, and aimless. Put me onto something like this school bus case, though, and zap! all those feelings disappear. Nothing else does it--not illicit sex, not cocaine, not driving fast late at night on the wrong lane of the highway, all of which I’ve tried. Nothing.

This Mitchell Stephens, Esquire, as we come to understand, is a creature that must control the world around him and the people in it.

Most everyone else in the novel lives on the spectrum that stretches between the two opposite poles of Billy and Mitch. But there is one person in town who is able to cross this divide, to rise above the continuum and view things from a new perspective. Her name is Nichole Burrell.

Initially, her sympathies are much more closely aligned with Billy’s perspective.

Of course, he was also afraid that I would refuse to go along with their lawsuit. I still hadn’t agreed to do it, not in so many words, but in my mind I had decided to go ahead and say what they wanted me to say, which they insisted was only to answer Mr. Stephens's and the other lawyers’ questions truthfully. That couldn’t hurt anything, I figured, because the truth was, I didn’t really remember anything about the actual accident, so nothing I said could be used to blame anybody for it. It was an accident, that’s all. Accidents happen.

But as they pressure her, both Mitch and her father, she begins to see the lawsuit, and her role in it, as a tool that can be used to accomplish certain goals. After listening to her father and Billy arguing over whether the lawsuit would help or hurt their small community, Nichole begins to work it out.

At that moment, I hated my parents more than I ever had. I hated them for all that had gone before--Daddy for what he knew and had done, and Mom for what she didn’t know and hadn’t done--but I also hated them for this new thing, this awful lawsuit. The lawsuit was wrong. Purely in God’s eyes, as Mom especially should know, it was wrong; but also it was making Billy Ansel sadder than life had already done on its own, and that seemed stupid and cruel; and now it looked like half the people in town were doing it too, making everyone around them crazy with pain, the same as Mom and Daddy were doing to Billy, so they didn’t have to face their own pain and get over it.

Why couldn’t they see that? Why couldn’t they just stand up like good people and say to Mr. Stephens, “No, forget the lawsuit. We’ll get by somehow on our own. It’s too harmful to too many people. Goodbye, Mr. Stephens. Take your law practice back to New York City, where people like to sue each other.”

Eventually, she decides that she, and only she, can make Mitch drop the lawsuit, but only if she plays her cards very carefully, revealing them to no one. And in doing so, she thinks, perhaps she can also repair the damage that’s being done to her family. They can drop all of the painful secrets that are dividing them, and go back to being the trusting family she remembers.

Except the big one, of course. Which would always be there, no matter what I did, like a huge purple birthmark on my face, something that he alone could see whenever he looked at me, and I, whenever I looked in the mirror.

I have to admit. When Banks first introduced the fact that Nichole was being sexually abused by her father, I questioned whether or not he could pull it off. It’s a difficult subject to address without gratuitous melodrama or squeamishness, but Banks does a good job with it. Especially since it becomes the axle around which Nichole’s plan ultimately turns.

Mitch wants access to the deep pockets that come with the town, or the county, or state--assuming one of them can be held accountable for building the road wrong, or not plowing it well enough, or not installing the proper guardrails. And Nichole’s father is one of the many people in town that Mitch is able to seduce into guarding this quest, agreeing to testify in any way necessary to ensure that such a case can proceed. But they need someone who can attest that the accident wasn’t Dolores’s fault. That, as the school bus driver, she was doing everything exactly as she was supposed to. And one of the only people who can do that is Nichole.

Expect Nichole decides to tell a different story. On the witness stand, she testifies that Dolores was speeding, and that Nichole knew she was because she was sitting right behind the driver’s seat and could see the speedometer. She lies, and it completely scuttles Mitch’s plans for bringing his style of justice to this small town, and there is a certain melodramatic pleasure in watching that unfold. But what’s more fascinating is the way Banks weaves into Nichole’s motivations both her desire to end the lawsuit and her desire to end the abusive relationship with her father.

But Daddy knew why I had lied. He knew who was normal and who wasn’t. Mr. Stephens couldn’t ever know the truth, but Daddy always would. He put my wheelchair into the trunk of the car and came around to the driver’s side and got in and sat there for a minute with the key in his hand, looking at it as if he didn’t quite understand its purpose. He said nothing for a long time.

They drive home and, in doing so, they pass the grounds where their county fair is held, and Nichole drifts into bittersweet reflection as she watches the fairgrounds under construction.

It looked beautiful, and sad somehow. The white grandstand and the covered stage facing it had been freshly painted, and the field of mown grass inside the oval racetrack in front of the stand was bright green and shiny under the huge blue sky. When I was Jennie’s age, the grandstand had seemed enormous to me and frightening, especially when we went at night and it was filled with a huge noisy crowd of strangers. Now the structure seemed tiny and almost sweet, and it would no longer be filled with strangers; I would know the faces and even the names of almost everyone up there on those board seats, and they would wave at me and say, Come on over, Nichole, and sit here with us. The track that looped around the field and passed between the stage and the grandstand had been raked smooth and watered until it looked like it was made of chocolate frosting. Scattered among the pine trees behind the grandstand were the low livestock barns and pens and the exhibit halls, where over the years I had won ribbons for my 4-H projects--my angora rabbits, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum; and my plaster-of-paris relief map of Sam Dent in 1866 with balsa wood houses and lichen woods and painted fields; and my Just Say No to Drugs poster. They had all won blue ribbons, which Daddy had framed and hung on the living room wall and which were still hanging there, although I had not looked at them in a long time. The skeleton of a Ferris wheel and the long arms of the octopus ride were already in place, and the game booths and tents were being assembled by a gang of tanned shirtless young men and boys with tattoos on their arms and cigarettes in their mouths, probably the same out-of-town men and boys who last year had flirted and called to me and Jody and the other local girls as we strolled along the midway and tried to ignore them but always found an excuse to turn around at the end of the row of booths and walk back, more slowly this time, looking at each other and rolling our eyes as the boys asked us to come on over and try our luck.

Bittersweet, of course, from the loss of her two innocences--the one her father took from her and the one she gave up on the witness stand.

Nichole’s own remorse comes out only at the very end of the drive.

As we pulled into the yard, I said to Daddy, “Nothing will happen to Dolores, will it?”

He shut off the engine, and we sat there for a moment in silence, listening to the dashboard clock tick. Finally, he said, “No. Nobody wants to sue Dolores. She’s one of us.”

“Will the police do anything to her now?”

“It’s too late for that. Dolores can’t drive the school bus anymore, anyhow; the school board saw to that right off. I doubt she even wants to. Everyone knows she’s suffered plenty.”

“But everyone will blame her now, won’t they?”

“Most will, yes. Those that don’t know the truth will blame Dolores. People have got to have somebody to blame, Nichole.”

“But we know the truth,” I said. “Don’t we?”

“Yes,” he said, and for the first time since before the accident, he looked me straight in the face. “We know the truth, Nichole. You and I.” His large blue eyes had filled with sorrowful tears, and his whole face seemed to beg for forgiveness.

I made a small thin smile for him, but he couldn’t smile back. Suddenly, I saw that he would never be able to smile again. Never. And then I realized that I had finally gotten exactly what I had wanted.

This result, this private victory of Nichole over her father, is much more satisfying to the reader than the more public victory she enjoyed over Mitch. In the competing philosophies our various narrators represent (Billy’s apathetic fatalism and Mitch’s domineering determinism), in the end we come to see that it is only Nichole that can dimly discern that truth. Those who are to blame rarely ever get what’s coming to them.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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