The Sweet Hereafter Essay, Research Paper
The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks
Through our life experiences, we all have a different story or perception of an event that we envision to be the truth. The question is, how do we know what is the truth? In the novel by Russell Banks, “The Sweet Hereafter” tells a handful of stories from different points of view providing contrasting angles and meanings to the same event. As these stories interlock with each other and intertwine together the accounts of how each of these people cope with this tragedy, Banks helps readers explore the complexities of grief. In “Books of The Times; Small-Town Life After a Huge Calamity”, Michiko Kakutani feels Banks draws on the school bus accident as a catalyst for enlightening the lives of the town’s people. “It’s as though he has cast a large stone into a quiet pond, then minutely charted the shape and size of the ripples sent out in successive waves.” Told in a fluid stream-of-collective-consciousness the four parallel first-person narrations shows the reality and vulnerability behind the cruel twist of fate. The shifting of these tales backward and forward in time fits into the mosaic perfectly in conveying the meaning across to the readers.
Taking place in the wintertime a representative of death, the story beginning with Dolores Driscoll is told in a simple and straightforward way. Dolores describes herself as “the kind of person who always follows the manual. No shortcuts.” (4). Kakutani also describes her as “the perky, well-meaning bus driver.” As we follow Driscoll, we catch a glimpse into the lives of some of the townspeople in her eyes. We read into her life as if we are living in it, watching and knowing her innermost thoughts. We follow behind just like Billy Ansel, “the only eyewitness” (37) of the accident. And as we follow Billy into his life, we truly feel deeply for him. Billy has lost a sense of love as death has faced him in the eyes once too many. Billy deals with his pain by turning to alcohol abuse, he cannot deal with his mourning, “Sometimes it’s not as if they have died so much as that I myself have died and become a ghost.” (43). From Dolores and Billy, the central theme is slowly revealed.
The central character in which the story takes off upon is Mitchell Stephens. He is drawn into this case by his own anger. He has his own sense of suffering and confusion toward his own daughter. Stephens is torn by his urge to save her and his fear that he can’t possibly do so. He recalls the flashback of his little girl as a toddler at a near death experience and him as her father while singing to her, held her life in his own hands prepared to perform an emergency tracheotomy. And in that way, Stephens’ own experience bonds together with the nightmare of those pain stricken parents: the ultimate unbearable burden of caring for children where strength will be tested beyond its limits. Stephen’s own daughter in whom he loves dearly has been taken away from him although she is not dead; she is practically gone out of his life. He is pissed off, “enough rage and helplessness, your love turns to steamy piss.” (101). Stephen is set to find the cause, something or someone to blame for their misfortunes and to rage against whatever forces took their child, “I don’t know if it was the Vietnam war…I don’t know which are the causes and which are the effects;” (99). On one hand, our perception of Mitchell Stephen is of a lawsuit vampire, pursuing a solution no one needs while on the other he is the very human victim of fate.
Perhaps the most powerful of all the point of views is the thoughts of Nichole Burnell. Although she is still an adolescent at the age of fourteen, she seems more adult than anyone else with so much more self-knowledge. She feels that a lawsuit is not the right thing to do, “It just wasn’t right-to be alive…and then go out and hire a lawyer; it wasn’t right.” (171). As we discover, not only is Nichole a victim of this accident but she is also a victim of her father’s weakness. When we realize what is happening to Nichole we feel deeply for her and even feel protective of her but she comes across to the reader so strong that we know she will make it through. The whole lawsuit comes to an end when Nichole proclaimed this to be an accident and they cannot blame anyone. “Because the truth was that it was an accident, that’s all, and no one was to blame.” (186).
The points of views presented convey the meaning across in a powerful yet roundabout way. The individual insight of each person combines together making the story so much more meaningful. Kakutani does an excellent job of summing up the meaning of the story in a short and straight to the point message,
In the end, of course, there is no one person or agency responsible for the accident. The accident is just that — an accident, one of those frighteningly random events that occasionally disrupt the even flow of daily life, underscoring the innate precariousness of life, our susceptibility to grief and loss and hurt.
There are things that happen without reasons; maybe it is just the cruel twist of fate with no one to blame. The story ends in August representative of warmth and the total opposite of winter where people learn to accept the fact that it was uncontrollable the accident and no one could have done anything to stop it… and now they begin to experience “the sweet hereafter”. A time of healing and recovery.