Thursday, July 25, 2013

What I read instead of reading - The Experiental Review of "The Sweet Hereafter"

I've got three kids: 12 year old boy, 10 year old girl, 4 year old boy. They are all smart, funny, unique and beautiful. The thought of any of them ceasing to be is unimaginable, and I refuse to speculate on how I would be able to work through such a tragedy.

Now, I knew the general plot behind Russell Banks' novel The Sweet Hereafter before I started reading it - it wasn't like being waylaid and destroyed by the heartbreaking beginning of Pixar's Up. I first heard of the story through press for its film version, and then picked up the novel at a library sale. So I knew that it was a sad book that involved the death of children in an accident, but when I decided to read the novels I own by Russell Banks, I felt forewarned, and confident that I could treat it as any other tragic drama that I would encounter; I felt that I was a strong enough reader to separate the book's narrative from my own.

The book is split into five parts, with four narrators. The first section is narrated by Dolores Driscoll, a small-town school bus driver, and details the everyday procedures and bus route she takes to pick up many of the town's children and get them to school safely on a snowy winter's day, and how the mundane instantly becomes life-shattering as the bus goes off the road into a half-frozen, flooded sandpit. This section is thick with foreshadowing and imminent tragedy, with a strong-voiced narrator, and does an excellent job of introducing the community. When the section suddenly ends, just over the brink of the accident, at the starting point of action, I was compelled to continue reading.

The second section is narrated by Billy Ansel, a widower who was the only witness to the accident, who loses his two children. His narrative involves the dissolution of an affair he was having with another parent who lost a child, some back story on his past marriage and his relationship with his kids, and how his way of dealing with the tragedy is to lose himself in the bottle. As a father this section was certainly hard to read, but I felt so removed from the characteristics of Ansel that I was able to keep my emotions somewhat in check.

Now I considered taking a break from the book at this point - to read something with a lighter tone for a while - and would have if not for Banks' excellent structuring, having the narrator of the next section be Mitchell Stephens, a lawyer who comes to town looking to help out the victims' families. Now, while Stephens has his own family problems (a drug-addicted daughter), exploring the legal dimension of the tragedy provided the emotional break I needed to stick with the story.

But then there was the fourth section, which is narrated by Nichole Burnell, a fourteen-year-old girl who was paralyzed in the accident. Her voice, and the layers of emotion and tragedy that come out on top of that of the accident (such as a history of sexual abuse by her father), sapped my motivation to continue the story.

It was summer vacation for me by the time I got into the fourth section. I had time on my hands for reading, and didn't want to read my book in progress. Now, where was an avid reader to turn, to take a break from a heart-rending story? Should I read a lighter book in the interim? A so-called "summer-read?" A trip to the local library gave me the answer: graphic novels!

In high school I was an dedicated comic book collector. My interest waned in college, but I would pick up the odd graphic novel or comic collection from the library every once in a while to feed my love of graphic narration. My early tastes in comics were heavy on Marvel, with only a smattering of Batman comics, and John Byrne's "Man of Steel" mini-series comprising my DC holdings. Over the past decade my graphic novel reading has mostly involved DC's Vertigo imprint series (Alan Moore's "Saga of the Swamp Thing", Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" & "Black Orchid", Bill Willingham's "Fables", anything with John Constantine) some mature Indies (Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead", Alan Moore's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" & "From Hell", Frank Miller's "300") and titles I could enjoy with my kids (Jeff Smith's "Bone", Kazu Kibuishi's "Amulet", David Peterson's "Mouse Guard"). Besides Kevin Smith and Frank Miller's work for DC, I generally had no interest.

But, driven by my desire to read anything else but The Sweet Hereafter, I read a few DC graphic novels, including:

Batgirl: Year One
Batman: Battle for the Cowl
Batman: The Black Glove
Batman: Blind Justice
Batman: Death in the Family
Batman: Golden Dawn
Batman: Haunted Knight
Batman: Hush
Batman: Hush 2
Batman: Hush Returns
Batman: Heart of Hush
Batman Incorporated
Batman: Private Casebook
Batman R. I. P.
Batman: Under the Hood
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
Blackest Night
Blackest Night: Rise of the Black Lanterns
Brightest Day: Volume One
Brightest Day: Volume Two
Brightest Day: Volume Three
Catwoman: When in Rome

Final Crisis
Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds
The Flash: Rebirth
The Flash: The Dastardly Death of the Rogues
Green Lantern: Secret Origin
Green Lantern: Rage of the Red Lanterns
Green Lantern: Agent Orange
Green Lantern: Brightest Day
Green Lantern: War of the Green Lanterns
War of the Green Lanterns: Aftermath
Green Lantern Corps: Fearsome
Identity Crisis

Like I said, a few graphic novels.

Then I read "Kick Ass: Hit Girl", and finally, all five volumes of Brian K. Vaughan's brilliant and affecting "Y: the Last Man" which was the first time I can remember being moved to drop a tear for a graphic novel.

At that point, though there are a few more random graphic novels available at my two local libraries, I broke down and finished The Sweet Hereafter in the waiting room while getting my car serviced. It did not wring any tears from me, but I think that it because the sadness the novel instills in its parent readers is like a deep ache. But I was able to use denial that such tragedy could occur in my family to finish my reading: I was able to stop questioning how I would ever get through losing a child, and keep the story's characters at a distance. So, as another Dolores Driscoll section bookends the narrative, and the characters are shown beginning to move on, I moved on as well, and finished well before my oil change and tire rotation did.

Next on my reading list is Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter - and I have no idea what it's about. I just hope it's not as sad as The Sweet Hereafter - I don't have enough graphic novels available to get me through!


mrhambre said...

I read Rule of the Bone, and Banks really has a compassionate way of dealing with the lives and imaginations of kids.

Steve Farrell said...

I read Rule of the Bone, and Banks really has a compassionate way of dealing with the lives and imaginations of kids.

mrhambre said...

Oops! Sorry for the echo.