The Sweet Hereafter Summary & Study Guide

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The Sweet Hereafter Summary & Study Guide Description

The Sweet Hereafter Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks.

The Sweet Hereafter is a novel by Russell Banks exploring the community reaction to a school bus accident that kills fourteen children. Written from four perspectives, the book shows how a common event effects lives differently and on a varying scale. Narration is provided by Dolores Driscoll, the driver of the ill-fated school bus; Billy Ansel, a pillar of the community who loses his twin children in the crash; Mitchell Stephens, a New York City attorney who descends on Sam Dent to build a negligence lawsuit; and Nichole Burnell, a fourteen-year-old beauty who survives the crash but is disabled. Covering seven months of grief and recovery, The Sweet Hereafter addresses complex issues in a simplistic, heart-rending fashion.

Dolores Driscoll has been a school bus driver for the community of Sam Dent for over twenty years. On the morning of January 27, 1990, she wakes before the sun to subzero temperatures and wonders if it will snow. Her husband, Abbott Driscoll, watches from his wheelchair as Dolores gets ready to begin her day. Abbott has been confined to a wheelchair since suffering a stroke several years prior and Dolores is their sole provider. She adores her husband and is especially fond of his sense of humor and logical perception of life’s events. Dolores heads out to her barn to start the bus she keeps in her barn, insisting on maintaining it herself. It starts immediately despite the cold weather, and she begins her morning route.

The first stop is outside the home of the Lamston children. Dolores sympathizes with the children she calls “field-mouse poor” and knows their home life is a rough one. Her next stop is to pick up adopted eleven-year-old Bear Otto. Dolores likes Bear’s enthusiasm and is fond of his parents, though some residents view them as “hippies.” Dolores makes several more pickups, including twins Jessica and Mason Ansel and learning-disabled Sean Walker. When Sean gets on the bus, he is visibly frightened and wants to stay home with his mother. Along with eighth-grade beauty Nichole Burnell, Dolores convinces Sean to take a seat and he relaxes, visibly. Dolores drives to the poorest section of town, The Flats, and picks up several children wearing hand-me-down winter clothing before heading back toward the school. Near the flats, Dolores hits the brakes to avoid hitting a stray dog and though there was never any danger, she feels frightened. Billy Ansel, the father of the twins, drives behind the bus in his pickup truck and waves to his children and the others in the back seats. This is a daily ritual for Billy on his way to work. Snow begins to fall more heavily and Dolores is watchfully cautious as she starts on a difficult stretch of Bartlett Hill Road. Through the snowy haze, Dolores believes she sees another dog and swerves. The bus careens off the side of the road, over an embankment and into an abandoned sandpit full of icy water.

Billy Ansel is the only eyewitness to the crash. He pulls over, calls for emergency help and immediately begins pulling children from the icy water. Even after it is confirmed his own children are dead, Billy continues in the recovery efforts, not wanting to go home and face his tragic reality. Billy is no stranger to untimely death, as he lost his wife to cancer four years earlier and is a veteran of the Vietnam War. The death of his children, however, drives him into alcoholism and isolation. His three-year affair with the married Risa Walker ends when the two feel awkward around each other following the deaths of the children.

New York City attorney Mitchell Stephens reads about the tragedy in the newspaper and decides to make a trip to Sam Dent and gauge any possible interest in filing negligence lawsuits. He checks into the Bide-A-Wile motel, owned by Sean Walker’s parents Risa and Wendell, and gleans information from the Walkers about victims’ families. Mitchell gets the Walkers and Bear Otto’s parents, Wanda and Hartley, to agree to have him as their attorney. He decides to seek out Nichole Burnell’s parents too since he believes there is money in Nichole’s pain and suffering. Since Billy Ansel is the only eyewitness who can confirm Dolores was driving the legal speed limit, Mitchell deliberately angers Billy to drive him away from the idea of joining in a lawsuit.

Mitchell has his own family problems, as his drug-addicted daughter Zoe contacts him at the motel in Sam Dent. He is used to Zoe calling when she is desperate for money and is curt when speaking with her. Zoe antagonizes her father before telling him she has just found out she is HIV positive. She says that she needs $1,000 and though Mitchell questions her honesty, he agrees to meet with her and give her the cash.

After over a month in the hospital, Nichole Burnell is discharged to go home. A spinal cord injury prevents her from feeling her legs, though she is still able to move them with help. The town’s favorite babysitter, Nichole had been crowned Harvest Queen just a few months before the school bus crash. When she returns home, Nichole faces a new existence that includes a lot of time alone in her room as she continues her studies from her bedroom. The one good thing to come from the accident is that Nichole is no longer a target for her father’s sexual abuse. Though Nichole keeps the secret to herself, she finds ways to remind her father she has not forgotten the abuse and she plans to torment him by wielding the upper hand and not letting him forget it either.

Nichole’s parents tell her they have hired Mitch Stephens as the family attorney and they would like Nichole to testify about her pain and suffering. Nichole is angry at the ungrateful selfish attitude of her parents and their callous disregard about the fact her life was spared but she agrees to give a deposition after talking with Mitchell Stephens. Billy Ansel comes over to the Burnell house one evening, angry he is being subpoenaed as a witness in the Mitchell’s lawsuit. Nichole overhears him telling her parents how hurtful his testimony will be to him and her parents refuse to budge from their opinion that the lawsuit should proceed.

At the deposition, Nichole plays up the stark contrast between her life before the accident and her current state. With her father and Mitchell Stephens in the room, Nichole answers all of the opposing counsel’s questions honestly. When they begin to question her about the accident, Nichole comments she is suddenly remembering a lot more about that day than she had recalled initially. She states for the record that she saw Dolores’ speedometer and it was registering nearly twenty miles over the legal speed limit just before the crash. With one statement, Nichole effectively ends all of the pending lawsuits relating to the school bus crash and crushes her father’s dream of receiving a multi-million dollar settlement.

Word spread through Sam Dent that Dolores Driscoll is to blame for the crash that happened nearly seven months earlier. Billy Ansel is relieved, calling Nichole Burnell the “town hero.” Dolores is unaware of the new developments and takes Abbott to the county fair to see the demolition derby. She is surprised at the snubs by locals she and Abbott receive, believing most people would have stopped blaming her by now. Billy Ansel helps Dolores carry Abbott’s wheelchair up the grandstand steps and tells the Driscolls what Nichole told the lawyers. Dolores feels a surge of relief the town finally has closure and a place to put their collective blame, even though she knows Nichole lied. She and Abbott watch two rounds of the demolition derby, including a round featuring her old station wagon Boomer, and afterward the two head home.

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