The Sweet Hereafter: Blame and Civil discourse
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We are surrounded by unexplainable horrors: gang violence and murder; hurricanes and other natural disasters cause hundreds of casualties; giant passenger planes crash into the ocean and hundreds die terrifying deaths. Justice and our search for moral peace seemingly require us to find an answer for these tragedies even though we subconsciously know that conclusive answers may not exist. Nonetheless, we need to blame someone. The courts often cannot decisively resolve who is to blame and even when there is closure, we generally have no cure other than imprisonment or compensation to make things right again. Efforts to assign blame often lead to suffering while the failure to make the effort leads to some lasting damage to the soul, both individual and communal.
Thus, we seem to have no choice even though we understand that moral peace will not be found either way. This struggle to assign blame, responsibility and liability is the core of The Sweet Hereafter. The book was inspired by a 1989 school bus crash in south Texas which took the lives of 21 children, initiated multiple lawsuits and, in some ways, destroyed a community. In The Sweet Hereafter, Banks examines blame, responsibility, liability, lawyers, truth, greed, and the implications of community as a result of the tragedy. This horrific and unexpected event brings to light the moral implications of tragedy while questioning communal and personal responses to that tragedy.
The reader learns the story through the detailed recollections of each of the central characters. The first four chapters present the perspectives of four narrator-witnesses who each give their views of the bus crash: Dolores Driscoll, Billy Ansel, Mitchell Stephens, and Nichole Burnell. But the events, except for the crash itself, don’t matter as much as the characters’ interpretations of the events and the impact of those events on the characters and on Sam Dent.
In telling the same story from various participants’ points of view, Banks shows us that what is a tragic mystery to Dolores Driscoll, is an accident to the grieving father Billy Ansel, is a tragedy with someone or something at fault for Mitch Stephens, and is an ironic opportunity for freedom for Nichole Burnell. Rather than taking a neutral stance that truth is undiscoverable and possibly absent, Banks advocates that truth is multi-dimensional and often cannot be revealed from a single vantage point. The uncertainties of truth in The Sweet Hereafter are symbolized by Banks’ story telling styles. Banks moves from narrator to narrator, and we learn different pieces of information as the story unfolds piece by piece.
The bus crash and the law suits that follow are a test of extreme psychological pain for the small town of Sam Dent. The people of Sam Dent seemed to care about each other through hard times, marital infidelity, heavy drinking, and other stressful situations. Now they are forced to suffer through the loss of many of their children. Nichole Burnell recounts her father’s argument with Billy Ansel about the ensuing lawsuits: “Daddy said, “There’s a whole lot of people in town that’s involved with lawsuits. We’re hardly unique here, Billy…You can’t just turn this off because you happen to think it’s a bad idea. Half the town is suing somebody or other, or getting ready to”” (193). The loss of the children is permanent, but rather than confront their grief and move on, some of the victims turn to the law to ease their pain and also to receive compensation for their suffering. The supportive community in the town becomes destroyed. As Dolores tells her version of the events in the book, a dog or at least a blur of some kind passes quickly across the path of the bus as it travels down the snowy road. Dolores says, “It was a dog I saw for certain. Or I thought I saw”(1).
Dolores is hesitant in recollecting what was in the road, if there was even anything there. Dolores admits that she simply doesn’t know how fast she was going although she told the police “Fifty, fifty-five is all”(33). Whereas Nichole, a crippled survivor, says that Dolores was speeding at the time of the accident. However, Nichole lied about the speed as a strategy to end the lawsuits and to punish her father for sexually abusing her. To Billy Ansel, who was following behind the bus in his pickup, it was all an accident. But as he says in the book, many townspeople and lawyers couldn’t leave it at that: “And then there were those folks who wanted to believe that the accident was not really an accident, that it was somehow caused, and that, therefore, someone was to blame.
Who caused this accident anyhow? Who can we blame?”(73-74). Very quickly, many of the parents come to see this tragedy as anything but a simple, yet unexplainable, accident. Those parents and victims, with the help of a crowd of invading lawyers, attempt to reassess the story to find the truth. As Stephens says: “I knew at once that it wasn’t an “accident” at all. There are no accidents. I don’t even know what the word means, and I never trust anyone who says he does”( 91). Stephens passionately wants to uncover the truth, but his tactics of to finding the truth are unsuccessful in this case, and do nothing but further disrupt the lives of the residents in Sam Dent. Banks conducts an “investigation” of the accident in his novel. He examines the cause and effects of blame and also compels us to think about why we so desperately need to assign responsibility when something goes wrong.
Banks attempts to move past the familiar stereotype to show that even though lawyers do “chase ambulances”(90) and use problematic situations or events to lead them to money, they are also sincere people with multiple motivations. Stephens was “somebody who is addicted to this process of finding the truth behind other people’s tragedies…”(91) Mitchell Stephens wanted to believe that the crash was an injustice, rather than a misfortune. He hoped to prove that there was some human or corporate culpability that resulted in the deaths of the children. However, his desire to find the truth led to a corruption of the social community in Sam Dent. Everyone’s lives began revolving around court legislations and evidence, which never made any progress and only prolonged the grieving process. Billy expresses his frustration with the infestation of lawyers: “This has become a hateful place to live, Sam. Hateful”(196).
Sam recognizes that the lawyers have instigated the desire to find closure and place the blame of the crash on someone, rather than accept the tragedy as a pure misfortune, with no one at fault. Mitchell Stephens is a man driven by the search for truth and justice, but at the same time, recognizes that some of the general stereotypes are placed upon him: “People immediately assume we’re greedy, that it’s money we’re after… it’s anger that drives us and delivers us…what it is, we’re permanently pissed off, the winners, and practicing law is a way to be socially useful at the same time, that’s all”(90). Lawyers are neither the villains nor the saviors in The Sweet Hereafter. Instead they are representations of good and evil, but nonetheless are focused on winning a battle. All of them are looking for money, some for justice, some are moved by anger, some to erase their own personal pain, but all lawyers are on a mission to assign blame. In hopes of some form of self help and personal satisfaction, the people in Sam Dent turn to the legal system seeking answers and some form of conclusion.
A true conclusion to this tragic event, however, will never be found. When Nicole Burnell lied by blaming Dolores for the accident, all the possible financial benefits from lawsuits were ruined, thus ending the searching frenzy for a villain. Nicole said, “Dolores was driving too fast, and it scared me”(213). She goes on to say that Dolores was Driving “seventy-two miles an hour”(213). Now, accusing Dolores for causing the accident could be justified by Nicole’s deposition. Immediately, all the blame was directed at Dolores. Nichole tells her own truth and ostracizes Dolores from the community, but becomes viewed as a hero for putting an end to the case.
Billy Advocates Nichole’s decision to end the case: “The girl has done us all, every single person in town, a valuable service”(240). Whether Nichole was actually lying or not, sacrificing Dolores for the good of the whole town was seen a heroic act. The idea of ruining one citizen appeared to be a way for the community to cleanse itself of its collective anger and blame. The chaos and constant skepticism in Sam Dent was erased, and everyone was enabled to end their grieving process and move on with their lives.
Dolores Driscoll did not deserve the community’s blame, but the community “killed” heranyway. The blame for an alleged injustice had to go somewhere, and Dolores was available due to her centrality to the accident. Nichole’s lie had two effects. First, it unfairly placed all the blame for the children’s deaths on Dolores. But equally important, by eliminating any possibility of a lawsuit, the lie destroyed any chance for Dolores to ever prove to her neighbors that she was innocent. She had grieved as well, but now she wanted her town back, and she expected them to accept her and her husband. She says, “Sam Dent was our permanent lifelong community. We belonged to this town, we always had, and they to us; nothing could change that, I thought. It was like a true family”(223). Dolores had accepted the fact that she was the victim of the blame, but she still hoped that she would be forgiven.
Sadly, this was not the case for Dolores, as seen at the Demolition Derby at the end of the story. Attending the Demolition Derby is important to the Driscoll’s not only because they attend it every year, but because this year they will see if the town has accepted them back as members of the community. When she and Abbott arrive, none of the townspeople acknowledge them anymore. But when Nichole Burnell arrives, the crowd applauds her and praises her presence. Additionally, the crowd begins to unanimously cheer every time Dolores’s old car was hit in the derby. The crowd had united to oppose anything associated with her, just as the community had united to blame her for the death of the children. Dolores expresses her emotions: “I had come to feel utterly and permanently separated from the town of Sam Dent and all of its people…we were as good as dead”(253). After this, she and Abbott leave the fairgrounds with the light of the town behind them.
Dolores is moving into a world of her own alone with Abbott, and is beginning to find a comfort in being in the “isolated darkness.”The Sweet Hereafter Emphasizes the destructive affects of Nichole’s lie and the influence of lawyers on the general public opinion. When bad things happen to good people, the natural human reaction is to try to assess blame. The best thing that the litigation process could have done in Sam Dent was convince the victims that what occurred was simply a misfortune with no one at fault. But the system was used to uncover vulnerable individuals and expose them to the discrimination and frustration of society’s urge to blame When a tragedy occurs, we can be sure of one thing, and that is that there will be blame.
The litigation process can either drive it away or properly direct it. But when the legal process gets corrupted, as it does in The Sweet Hereafter, the danger is that the blame will be wrongfully placed on the innocent. The Sweet Hereafter is not about Mitchell Stephens’ defeat or Nichole Burnell’s revenge. It is about the influence of lawyers on the desires of the community, and Dolores Driscoll’s realization that once her community mistakenly channeled its blame at her, she was “as good as dead”(254).
1) Banks, Russell. The Sweet Hereafter. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992. Print.