The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks


Banks, R. (1991). The sweet hereafter. New York: Harper Collins.

Paperback: $14.99, Kindle $10.00, 257 pages

ISBN: 9780676970944

Author’s Website and Interviews: (Could not locate an official author website)

Online Reviews:


The New York Times:

Annotation: After a tragic accident claims the lives of fourteen children, the people of Sam Dent are forever changed by guilt and blame. 

Summary: The story is told in multiple first person narratives centering around a tragic school bus accident that claimed the lives of fourteen children from the town of Sam Dent. Through the narratives of Dolores Driscoll, the bus driver, Billy Ansel, a father who lost both of his children, Mitchell Stephens, Esquire, a city lawyer who persuades the families to file a lawsuit, and Nichole Burnell, one of the few survivors of the accident, the novel explores how grief and blame can tear a town apart, changing the lives of all who loved and lost that day. The recounting by Nichole is pivotal to the pending lawsuits but when she decides to lie during her deposition, stating that Dolores was driving well over the legal speed limit, all hopes of winning the lawsuits are lost as she was supposed to serve as Stephen’s star witness that would bring justice against the town’s negligence. Although everyone involved, especially her father, know Nichole is lying, he is unable to reveal her lie out of fear she will reveal a dark and sinister secret he has kept hidden for years.

Evaluation: I really enjoyed this book and liked that it was told from four different perspectives as I felt it gave more diverse insight into the day of the accident. The writing was extremely descriptive and I felt that there was strong character development especially for Billy Ansel and Nichole Burnell. I appreciated the candid writing style and felt at times as if each of the four characters were sitting in a room with me, retelling their story. I feel like the pacing of the story provided the reader with ample time to connect with the characters and learn more about their lives both before and after the accident. The themes of the book, love, loss, divorce, self-destruction, guilt, and blame are things everyone has experienced or dealt with at some point in their life. This book is relatable and transcends backgrounds, allowing people from every walk of life to experience the novel in their own unique way.

Genre: Literary Fiction

Appeal Factors: Lyrical, leisurely paced, plot-driven, bleak, and candid

Read-alike Titles and Authors:

  • The Rainy Season by James Blaylock
  • Wabash by Robert Olen Butler
  • The Sea Lady by Margaret Drabble

Awards: ALA Notable Books-Fiction (1992)

Booktalk Ideas:

  • Present audience/reader with an If/Then scenario. For example, if Nichole had told the truth rather than lie about the role Dolores played in the accident, then the lawsuits would have gone forward and she would no longer have power over her father.

Book Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does Nichole decide not to reveal the secret about her father?
  2. Why does Nichole place the blame on Dolores, knowing that an innocent woman will take the fall?
  3. What does Billy Ansel’s affair with Rita say about the accident? Grief? Blame?
  4.  How  has the town changed since the loss of “its children”? What do the children symbolize for the town and those who live there?
  5. What does the book’s title say about the characters in the book and how they cope with the aftermath of the accident? Do you think any of the characters achieved a “sweet hereafter” by the end of the book?

This book was recommended to me by a friend. I had never heard of it before but was intrigued by the title. After reading the back of the book which stated it was ” a haunting novel which reads like a mystery” I was sold. I am drawn towards books that are haunting, dark, and examine the impact tragedy and grief have on people. I also was curious to see how a multiple perspective narrative worked for the story and whether it would portray the story in a more disjointed way.