Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

Tessa Bright Wildsmith

“The Sweet Hereafter” is a story that explores how you deal when the worst possible thing happens. Who do you blame, and how do you deal with your grief?

It was like any other morning in the small town of Sam Dent near the Canadian border. Winter had set in, and it was cold and quiet. Long time bus driver Doloris Driscoll started her morning as she had many others - with a warm cup of coffee and a smile. She set out on her usual route to pick up all the children and get them to school on time. She knew all the kids and their parents. She knew their routines and which ones she would have to wait a few extra minutes for.

Then the unthinkable happened. As Doloris drove through the frozen mountain roads, a blur streaked in front of the bus. Doloris swerved, trying to miss it. The bus flipped, rolling down the side of an embankment. In the end, several children were dead, many others injured.

The story is narrated from four different points of view. First, by the bus driver, Doloris, who was once so optimistic, but now is consumed by guilt. Next, by Billy Ansel, the grieving father who’s twins were killed in the crash. Billy is the only witness to the crash. The third is Mitchell Stephens, a personal injury lawyer who comes to Sam Dent to try and convince the grieving parents to file suit against the county and the school system. And finally, young Nicole Burnell, the all-American cheerleader who survives the crash but ends up paralyzed.

In the end, there isn’t any closure or a sense of finality. The guilt of survival becomes a plague on the small town. Time doesn’t heal the pain. The community becomes obsessed with its grief and with who is to blame after such a fault-less accident.

As each narrator tells their side of the story, we get a little more background on the town and its people. It was an interesting way to lay out the book.

Overall, I didn’t really like this book. I liked Banks writing very much, and I liked his characters. They were intriguing and complex. My disappointment came from the fact nothing really happening during the novel. It was much more a character study and too light on plot. The crash is past tense by the time the book starts, so all we are left with is the sadness and grief. Banks, however, truly captures those dark emotions with his smooth, haunting prose.

Banks’ writing is so good that I’ll definitely give him another try with one of his many other novels. I just hope there’s more going on than in “The Sweet Hereafter.”

Have you read “The Sweet Hereafter?” Discuss your thoughts on the book below.

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