Narrative Wounds and Livable Fictions
Bearing witness and fixing blame in Russell Banks’s novel The Sweet Hereafter.
The Sweet Hereafter, (1997) Alliance Communications Corporation
By Matthew Potts
Russell Banks is an author of provocative and moving fictions that explore American life in some of its most hidden and troubling aspects. He has been routinely celebrated for his accomplishments in American letters, an invitation to deliver the 2014 Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard Divinity School not least among his honors. His 1991 novel, The Sweet Hereafter, stands as perhaps his most tragic and well-known work, due in part to Atom Egoyan’s Academy Award–nominated film adaptation. Based on real events, the novel documents the aftermath of a school bus accident in a small Adirondack town that claims the lives of numerous children.1 Spare of plot, the work inhabits with unrelenting deliberation the awful movements of grief and loss in the fictional town of Sam Dent. The surviving driver of the bus, Dolores Driscoll, narrates the first and last sections of the novel, and in many ways her perspective governs the reader’s. Hers are literally the first and last words of this sad story, and her voice is one that follows the cadence of familiar folk wisdom. But a few of her folksy phrases stir questions of deep significance for the careful reader; they raise crucial questions especially for those of us who study, practice, or consider religion. Two phrases, I think, uniquely illuminate this novel: “bearing witness” and “fixing blame.”
In the final section of the novel, before she and her disabled husband, Abbott, head to the midway for the demolition derby and the final day of the county fair, Dolores recollects:
After the accident, I had attended the funerals, but alone, without even Abbott to accompany me; it was a way of bearing witness, I guess you could call it. I kept to myself, spoke to no one, and left immediately after the services. It was just something I had to do, something crucial between me and the children. I don’t think people, the adults, quite wanted me there among them, which was understandable, but I had to do it—for the children, who, if they could have spoken for themselves, would surely have asked me to attend their funerals and say a prayer for each of their dear departed souls. And I did. They would have thought me cowardly if I had stayed home instead. (224)2
Delores must bear witness here, somehow; she must speak for the children who cannot speak for themselves, despite the difficulty and strain this causes her. One cannot help but see a double meaning when reading Dolores’s words, because to bear a witness means not just to offer a witness, but also to suffer a witness, to endure a witness. And this additional—perhaps hidden—meaning demands further consideration from us, I think, especially when we consider how this novel’s plot turns almost entirely upon the false (we might say fictional) testimony of a witness, a witness just learning to speak for herself and who is already a victim in multiple senses of that word: Nichole Burnell, about whom more will shortly be written.
At the beginning of the novel Dolores also tells us that “Fixing motives is like fixing blame—the further away from the act you get, the harder it is to single out one thing as having caused it” (10). If The Sweet Hereafter is about bearing witness, then it is also about fixing blame in the wake of disaster, about this community’s struggle to make sense of an unspeakable tragedy and to do so by assigning some responsibility for it. The various mourners of Sam Dent attempt to fix (that is, to mend) the horror of the bus crash by fixing (that is, assigning) blame for the bus crash, by giving it some sense through a coherent story, through a reliable witness—a story and a witness, by the way, that Nichole finally and fictionally bears. But if the novel is the story of a sense-making, then it is also a meditation upon the intractability of senselessness, too, about the absolute impossibility of really fixing blame, of affixing or assigning it in any simple way to human persons in the wake of human tragedy. I think the novel also subtly asks whether the fixing of blame might somehow become the mending of blame, whether there might be some way to fix or repair the necessary and sacrificial processes of sense-making and blame-fixing that always follow tragedy, and what possibility there might be, if any, for real life in the aftermath of all that sense-making sacrifice. I’d like to suggest that the hidden meanings of these phrases, of bearing witness and of fixing blame, are meant to hang together in this novel, and that the way they do so should have profound impact for both fiction readers and for students of religion around questions of sacrifice, redemption, atonement, and forgiveness.
This notion of bearing witness in service of fixing blame is most fully realized, of course, in the character of Mitchell Stephens, the personal injury lawyer who comes to Sam Dent full of rage and righteous indignation and in search of justice. As Stephens tells us:
So that winter morning when I picked up the paper and read about this terrible event in a small town upstate, with all those kids lost, I knew instantly what the story was; 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)
There’s always a reason for tragedy, Stephens says, and usually the reason is greed. The only way to check that greed is to manipulate it, to force those who budget tragedy into their bottom lines to assign it a considerable monetary cost, so that they will see it as a savings to “build the bus with the extra bolt, or add the extra yard of guardrail” (91). And so Stephens goes in search of what he needs: witnesses, people who can tell the right story. In order to hold someone accountable, in order to settle accounts, Stephens needs someone to give an account. What makes him a skilled and successful personal injury lawyer is his capacity for finding and cultivating the right kind of stories. The law, he demands, redeems loss—that is, losses can be paid for and prevented, as long as the right story is told to the right person in the right way. This telling is what Stephens calls the truth, and Stephens depends almost entirely upon Nichole Burnell to bear witness to his truth.
This notion of submission to the law for the sake of sense or meaning or truth is an idea that recurs in various ways throughout the work of various postmodern thinkers. Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida all posit variations on this theme, but I’d like to reference the work of Judith Butler. One of the claims of postmodern critical thought has been that the self, the subject or individual identity, is always conditioned by language. We come to realize ourselves, who we are and what we mean, through language. But this is also to say that the condition of our identity always resides outside ourselves, because all our understanding depends upon a language we have inherited and over which we have only limited control. As Butler writes:
If I try to give an account of myself, if I try to make myself recognizable and understandable, then I might begin with a narrative account of my life. But this narrative will be disoriented by what is not mine, or not mine alone. And I will, to some degree, have to make myself substitutable in order to make myself recognizable.3
That is, I have to put myself into words—words not my own, words we share—for you to recognize me as an identifiable subject, or even to recognize myself as one. In this way, Butler continues, it “is only in dispossession that I can and do give any account of myself.” The law is a prime example of this movement. Under the law, a truth does exist, but only as long as it can be told in terms that will satisfy the accounting that law requires. Thus, this type of witness “must substitute the manifestation” or outward revelation “for the inward self.”4
This idea of manifestation as an act of sacrifice, of bearing witness and giving an account of oneself as a form of submission to a regime of truth and thus also as a form of self-sacrifice, offers us a fascinating lens through which to read Nichole Burnell’s character in this novel. Nichole is one of the few survivors of the bus crash. She has been paralyzed by the accident, but because she sat directly behind Dolores on the bus, she offers Stephens precisely the witness he seeks. Nichole’s parents quickly cooperate with Stephens to arrange her testimony. However, complicating her witness is the secret of the sexual abuse she has suffered for years. As Nichole says, the “only truly valuable thing I owned now happened to be Daddy’s worst secret, and I meant to hold onto it” (180). By the time she goes to the courthouse to give her testimony, Nichole has decided that Stephens and the lawsuit must be stopped. Having eavesdropped on a conversation between her parents and Billy Ansel, whose nine-year-old twins have died in the crash and who opposes the suit, Nichole says:
At that moment, I hated my parents more than I ever had. I hated them for all that had gone before—Daddy for what he knew and had done, and Mom for what she didn’t know and hadn’t done—but I also hated them for this new thing, this awful lawsuit. The lawsuit was wrong. Purely and in God’s eyes. . . .
Why couldn’t they see that? Why couldn’t they just stand up like good people and say to Mr. Stephens, “No, forget the lawsuit. We’ll get by somehow on our own. It’s too harmful to too many people.” (197)
Nichole believes that the movements of law, of legal blame-fixing, will somehow collaborate in Sam Dent’s continuing ruin. Because she realizes that legal blame can only be fixed upon the school district or the state if it is not fixed upon Dolores, Nichole lies and says Dolores was speeding, that she was truly to blame, effectively ending the viability of her parents’—and Mitchell Stephens’s—legal claim. But what’s really interesting here is that this substitution of fault, this false witness before the law, also somehow reveals another truth between Nichole and her father. Worried that her lie may cause trouble for Dolores, she asks her father if Dolores will suffer any consequences. He replies,
“No. Nobody wants to sue Dolores. She’s one of us. . . . Everyone knows she’s suffered plenty.”
“But everyone will blame her now, won’t they?”
“Most will, yes. Those that don’t know the truth will blame Dolores. People have got to have somebody to blame, Nichole.”
“But we know the truth” . . . “Don’t we?”
“Yes. . . . We know the truth, Nichole. You and I.” (219)
In this substitution of guilt, wherein Nichole substitutes her story for another, a false witness manages finally to fix blame upon her father.
So: Nichole has submitted to a legal regime of truth, but has manipulated that regime to her own purposes, too. She has sacrificed her story in order to tell a more necessary one; she’s subverted and undone one truth in order to attain a different, more demanding one. She has given an account of herself in the only manner she can, in the externally imposed language of law, under the narrative frame of deposition, but she’s also found a way to resist the lie of that lawfulness and assert a better justice. But the story she offers, for all it achieves, still involves a sacrifice as well: it fixes blame for all this sadness entirely upon Dolores Driscoll.
Dolores doesn’t realize this until she heads to the grandstand on the final day of the county fair to watch the demolition derby. She takes her place at the top of the grandstand with her disabled husband, Abbott, and an inebriated Billy Ansel takes a seat next to them. When Nichole Burnell arrives, some folks carry her wheelchair up the grandstand, too, accompanied by a polite round of applause from the crowd. Billy tells the Driscolls that Stephens couldn’t get Nichole to testify as he wanted, so it “looks like we won’t be seeing any lawsuits, after all. Which is fast bringing this town back together. . . . The girl has done us all, every person in town, a valuable service. Even you, Abbott. Even you, Dolores, believe it or not” (244). When pressed, Ansel admits that Nichole has lied and has blamed Dolores for the accident. This occasions a significant emotional ambivalence in Dolores. On the one hand, she says:
I felt as if a great weight that I had been lugging around for eight or nine months, since the day of the accident, had been lifted from me. A huge stone or an albatross or a yoke. One minute it was there, and because it had been there for so long, I had grown used to it; and the next minute it was gone, flown away, disappeared, and I was suddenly able to recognize what a terrible weight I had been carrying all these months. That’s strange, isn’t it? You’d expect me to feel angry, maybe, unjustly accused and all that. But I didn’t. Not at all. I felt relieved. And, therefore, grateful. Grateful to Billy Ansel, for revealing what Nichole had done, and grateful to Nichole for having done it. (247–248)
But on the other hand, as she watches her old station wagon (and the former school bus) Boomer win the demolition derby, she feels “utterly and permanently separated from the town of Sam Dent,” as if she and the victims of the crash are
The citizens of a wholly different town now, as if we were a town of solitaries living in a sweet hereafter, and no matter how the people of Sam Dent treated us, whether they memorialized or despised us, whether they cheered for our destruction or applauded our victory over adversity, they did it to meet their needs, not ours. Which, since it could be no other way, was exactly as it should be. (254)
In other words, Dolores realizes that she has been set apart by the town, made into a sacrifice in order to serve the town’s need to fix blame and make sense of the bus crash. In some ways, she is realizing in full what Abbott has told Mitchell Stephens earlier in the novel: that “Blame creates comprehension” (150). To comprehend this loss, Sam Dent has exiled Dolores. It is a dark and somewhat tragic conclusion to a darkly tragic tale, which—as Dolores has said—is exactly as it should be. But another thing Abbott says to Mitchell Stephens further complicates the novel’s ending. When telling Stephens they won’t join in the suit, Abbott says that only the people of Sam Dent, “who have known her all her life . . . can decide her guilt or innocence. And if Dolores . . . has committed a crime, then it is against [the people of Sam Dent], not the state, so they are the ones who must decide her punishment too” (151). The law can’t really fix blame, Abbott suggests; only Sam Dent can. And as Dolores rises to leave the derby, having been sacrificed by Nichole and by the town, the people of the town rise and help her get Abbott down the steps, in a gesture of courtesy that mirrors Nichole’s arrival. The ambiguous punishment Dolores will receive, it seems, is to remain a part of this town, and to feel the courtesy, even the care, of its people.
All this gestures toward something poignant and important for us as readers of this book. As Frederic Jameson has said, we cannot not narrate; we cannot but tell stories which aim to make sense of a sometimes senseless world.5 But even if we cannot resist the compulsion to bear witness and to fix blame, we might—we must—also recognize that the stories we tell will always involve a sacrifice of sorts, and that our making sense of the past so we can live on into a sensible future must reckon with the sacrificial victims of our sense-making and our blame-fixing in real, material ways. Even as we offer witness and assign blame, we must leave space for the suffering our witnessing will generate; we must remain prepared to mend the wounds our blame will often additionally inflict on our fellows. As we tell our stories, we should allow our encounter with others also to undo our certainties, and we should accept that those others might also come, rightly, to reject the sacrifices we offer. As Butler writes, “if we speak and try to give an account from this place,” this place of uncertainty, of openness, of vulnerability, “we will not be irresponsible, or if we are, we will surely be forgiven.”6
This is what I think is at stake in this sad novel, and in its deeply unsatisfying, although altogether appropriate and moving, conclusion. But however important this lesson might be for readers of Banks’s fiction in general, I believe it may be especially relevant for students and ministers of religion like me, of the Christian religion in particular. Christianity comes in for some criticism in this book. As Dolores says, “Oh, like most persons, we go to church . . . but we’re not religious persons, Abbott and I. Although, since the accident there have been numerous times when I have wished that I was. Religion being the main way the unexplainable gets explained. God’s will and all” (26). Billy Ansel is a bit more forthright about his religious disposition. “The Christians,” he says,
Talk about God’s will and all—that only made me angry, although I suppose I am glad that they were able to comfort themselves with such talk. But I could not bring myself to attend any of the memorial services that the various churches in Sam Dent and the neighboring towns invited me to. It was enough to have to listen to Reverend Dreiser at the twins’ funeral. He wanted us all to believe that God was like a father who had taken our children for himself. Some father.
The only father I had known was the one who had abandoned his children to others.” (73)
For Billy, “the religious explanation [is] just another sly denial of the facts” (79); it is just another bearing of witness, just another fixing of blame, which is implicated in all the same confusions and complexities of offering and suffering, affixing and mending, that any other narrative explanation might be. To be sure, the offensive theodicies of God’s will for dead children, as well as the thin atonement theologies of a Son sacrificed to the Father (both referenced by Billy) that Christians have sometimes resorted to in the aftermath of tragedy—whether that tragedy is an accident in the Adirondacks or a crucifixion in Judea—seem to be as desperate for comprehension, sense, law, and justice as anything Mitchell Stephens says in this book. We cannot not narrate, and once we do, we can’t avoid the sacrifices and sins each telling will entail. But as the grandstand on the midway teaches us, there might yet be more to this story; or at least, there might be more to our story and more to what we are obliged to do with our story once it’s told. Because even if we cannot undo the past, and cannot but fix blame upon a past we can’t undo, we might still find a gracious way of living into the future with our story and with one another in mutual care, concern, and community.
Nichole’s story demands a sacrifice, yes, but it’s a sacrifice Sam Dent can live with, one even Dolores can live with, unlike all the other stories—legal, religious, whatever—that are on offer. Nichole’s story is a fiction, but it’s a livable fiction, it’s a fiction with a future, a fiction that rises up with Dolores and Abbott Driscoll and escorts them down the steep stairs of the grandstand and back into the tragic life of that town. Whatever else the Christian story says about sacrifice, it says something like this, too, and associates with these necessary, narrative wounds such gracious and difficult aspirations as forgiveness, redemption, and atonement. Insofar as fiction, and Banks’s fiction in particular, reminds me of such gracious aspirations, then for me at least it remains a religious sort of storytelling, a bearing of witness that fixes its blame even as it invites and invokes a better future.
- According to Banks, the novel was based on a newspaper clipping about the 1989 school bus crash in Alton, Texas, that killed twenty-one children and injured forty-nine.
- All quotes are from the original edition: Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter (HarperCollins, 1991).
- Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (Fordham University Press, 2005), 37.
- According to Butler, revelatory narration “does not ‘express’ a self but takes [the self’s] place, and it accomplishes that substitution through an inversion of the particular self into an outward appearance. . . . [W]e have to understand manifestation itself as an act of sacrifice.” Ibid., 114.
- See Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press, 1991).
- Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 136.
Matthew Potts joined the faculty of Harvard Divinity School in 2013 as Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies. This essay was adapted from a talk he delivered on November 5, 2014, as part of an HDS-sponsored series of seminars, “The Sacrifice of Children on the Altar of Capitalism: Bearing Witness in the Writings of Russell Banks” (held in advance of Banks’s November 5, 2014, Ingersoll Lecture).