A work worth rereading

Review: “The Sweet Hereafter” by Russell Banks

New books keep piling up. Consequently I don’t go back and re-savor favorite novels as often as I probably should. That deficiency in my behavior became eminently clear as I reread Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter” for this review.

Banks’ death just over a year ago, in January 2023, was a great loss not only for his family and friends, but for the Adirondack region and literature in general. I’d only had opportunity to meet and talk with him twice. Each time he came across as generous, fully committed to his writing and to the region, and a wonderful conversationalist. On the last occasion, about a year ago at an Adirondack Center for Writing event, he told me about prospects for a movie based on another of his Adirondack-themed books, “Rule of the Bone.”

“The Sweet Hereafter” deals with the aftermath of a small town tragedy, namely a fatal school bus crash on a wintry Adirondack road. Deaths of young students in the village of Sam Dent marked the first component of the tragedy. A desire to place blame, our all-too-common reaction to an accident, then took center stage.

Banks had four different narrators provide the story. For each he managed to create a distinct voice. Both the narrators and a variety of other characters are well delineated. There is ample foreshadowing, but the author’s strength comes from his powers of description.

Of the bus driver: “I’m the kind of person who always follows the manual. No shortcuts.”

Ambience of the bus — “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 village: “Sam Dent is one of those towns that’s on the way to somewhere else, and people get this far, they usually keep going.”

Impact of the accident: “Wendell is like the rest of us, a person whose life has two meanings, one before the accident and one after.”

Adirondack winter: “It was very cold; my shoes squeaked against the hard-packed snow on the ground, and my breath glided out in front of me in pale thin strips.”

Two passages directly address feelings after the terrible event. “A town that loses its children loses its meaning.” And the angst of a survivor who is paralyzed: “You can feel lucky that you didn’t die for only so long. And then you start to feel unlucky.”

Readers may learn more than they’d like about the motivations and strategies of negligence attorneys. The lawyer who serves as one narrator offered the following: “Because it’s anger that drives us and delivers us…. No, what it is, we’re permanently pissed off, and practicing law is a way to be socially useful at the same time, that’s all.”

Each character brings a backstory to the situation, and in fairness, at least once I thought that some introspection dragged on a bit too long. Still, everyone has a secret, though secrets impact each of us differently. By the end of this 250-page novel I I knew the main characters quite well.

The accident comes early in the book, so I haven’t spoiled it for you. The subsequent conflict, which envelops all the narrators and most of the town, plays out more slowly. Personal conflicts, moral dilemmas, and sequelae of hardscrabble existence keep the tale taut and meaningful. This is a richly rewarding story to read.

“The Sweet Hereafter” could be a fine introduction to Russell Banks’ work, yet it also will resonate anew to those who have read it before. Now it’s time for me to reread his other Adirondack novels!


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