In his novel The Sweet Hereafter, Russel Banks explores the aftermath of tragedy through the lens of four different points of view: Dolores Driscoll, Billy Ansel, Mitchell Stephens, and Nichole Burnell. The characters each have a different perspective in the “sweet hereafter” of a school bus crash in which a majority of the town’s children die. Russel Banks uses their considerably unlucky situations alongside the motif of luck to establish that both blessings and curses can be found in any scenario. Through the various points of view in which the characters process their life post-tragedy, The Sweet Hereafter exposes the ambiguous nature of luck.
The comparison of luck was first introduced before the accident when bus-driver Dolores Driscoll reflects on the various social and economic backgrounds of the children she drives to school. Some of them, the nine who live along the Wilmot Flats, come from poorer families and less-than-lucky home lives. A majority of their parents are teenagers or married through incest, and some of them are alcoholics. While Dolores sympathizes for these children, she points out that some of them, “the occasional plucky one, who happens also to be lucky and gifted with intelligence, good looks, and charm, he might get back, before he dies, to his native town” (30). Even a child born into unfortunate circumstances beyond his or her control can find a slither of luck, one that might turn their lack of luck into an opportunity to improve his or her situation in life.
The word “lucky” is most frequently used to describe Nichole Burnell, the fourteen-year-old survivor of the accident. She is consistently told that she is lucky to have survived the bus crash: “Everyone had come to the hospital to visit and tell me how lucky I was” (169). It seems unnatural for an adult to tell a child that she is lucky after such a traumatic experience, especially due to the fact that she was permanently injured as a result and will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Obviously, Nichole is not lucky to be in a car crash that killed many of her peers; she is lucky to be alive. Everyone tells her that she is lucky for her inability to remember the incident, and that it’s “a door between rooms” (159). She is not lucky in many other respects; she endured not only a life-threatening car crash, but also years of sexual abuse at the hands of her own father. She is “lucky” to be in a wheelchair because her father no longer finds her attractive and will no longer molest her. This should not be considered lucky, especially for such a young girl.
When an adult speaks to Nichole, luck becomes a synonym for life. She is paralyzed from the waist down, yet is congratulated for the fact that she is still breathing. “Everyone would see me and instantly think of the kids who weren’t there anymore, the kids who had not been lucky like me, and maybe they would hate me for it” (177). Parents and adults were envious of Nichole because she was alive and their children were not, which not only places unfair guilt on Nichole, but creates ambiguity when referring to her luck. She is lucky to be alive, but unlucky to have witnessed such a traumatic event and to be in a wheelchair as a result. She is lucky that her father no longer rapes her, but unlucky that she had to suffer it in the first place and that she continues to hold his secret.
This uncertainty clearly confuses and frustrates Nichole. When she learns that her parents plan to pursue a lawsuit, she feels guilty that they had a “close call, and then go out and hire a lawyer….I didn’t understand it at all, and I knew it wasn’t right. Not if I was, like they said, truly lucky” (171). In her mind, her parent’s desire to sue means that they do not see the luck in her situation because she “would spend the rest of her life a cripple” (171). Despite being told repeatedly how fortunate she is, it is nearly impossible for her to look at her circumstances and be grateful. She does attempt to feign thankfulness, as she does not aspire to “appear ungrateful and end up losing what little luck I had” (171). However, she also responds to being told she is lucky with frustration, even anger. After Rudy tells her that she is lucky for the second time (163, 165), Nichole responds by saying, “Shut up, Rudy” (165). The recurrence of the word lucky, as it is used to describe Nichole, exemplifies not only the ambiguity of her luck but also her confusion. Her experience after the accident is one of confliction because she cannot figure out if she is lucky or not. She does become superstitious as a result of the accident and eventually concludes: “I didn’t worry so much about whether I was lucky or unlucky. I was both, like most people” (189). This once again demonstrates the comparative nature of luck. When compared to the majority of fourteen-year-olds, Nichole is extremely unlucky based on the hardships she has endured. However, in comparison to the children who passed away as a result of the accident, she is lucky simply to be alive. There is no luckiness or unluckiness without comparison to that of others.
When Nichole says that Dolores is lucky (171) and adults tell Nichole that she is lucky, they are referring to the fact that they are both alive. In the midst of tragedy, survivors and witnesses alike seek solace in much smaller pleasures that they would take for granted otherwise. For example, Mitchell Stephens, Esquire, interpreted luck differently than Nichole or Dolores. Rather than being personally affected by the incident, he enters as part of the aftermath. He is neither a victim nor survivor, but he does play a role in the sweet hereafter. As an attorney, he hoped to be a part of the solution for Sam Dent. As a thrill-seeker, Mitchell finds it difficult to find a case that fills him with “an intensity and focus that makes me feel more alive then than at any other time” (121). When he stumbles upon the school bus tragedy of Sam Dent, he begins his search for people to represent, particular those with anger that he can channel in the courtroom. He is a brilliant man, but selective when it comes to his cases and whom he represents. When he meets the Walker family, he relishes in their anger and utilizes it to work in favor for his case. To Mitchell, it was “a happy start for me, a lucky break” (105). This is what luck typically looks like: something that makes a job easier or life more comfortable. Neither Mitchell nor Nichole is portrayed as the “lucky one” in the novel. Rather, they are, as Nichole states, both lucky and unlucky (189). Mitchell, of course, is luckier in the sense that he has not suffered Nichole’s pain. Although he does suffer emotionally at the news that his drug-addict daughter has been diagnosed with AIDS, he still has a life of his own to live. A town in recovery of such negative circumstances views a fourteen year-old life, however broken, as proof that life moves on.
The ambiguity of luck allows for a choice in how one responds to his or her luck. This is something Nichole struggles with. “I looked at my picture of Einstein. What would he have done, if he’d been in an accident and been lucky like me?” (187). The sweet hereafter of the incident is influenced largely by the choices the characters make in responding to their luck, or lack thereof. Out of all four primary characters, Billy Ansel is the only one whose chapter does not mention the word luck. Billy is a widower in addition to losing his two children in the accident. He, like Nichole, has suffered so much that luck seems nonexistent. They differ in that Nichole recognizes the little luck that she has (171), while Billy lingers in despair. He decides that “the only reality was death” (80). Although Billy’s glass may appear more half-empty than half-full, the choice to believe in life is always there. His only reality is death not because life ceases to exist, but because this is the only outlook he accepts as true. Mitchell takes the concept of choice, as it applies to luck, a step further. He believes that choice not only impacts the sweet hereafter in responding to luck, but also the incident itself. The accident, according to Mitchell, is not a matter of good or bad luck—it must be someone’s fault. While Billy does not believe he has any good luck, Mitchell denies its presence, stating “It wasn’t an ‘accident’ at all. There are no accidents” (91). He insists that luck is a matter of choice, and that in order for an incident as unfortunate as the school bus crash, someone, whether it was Dolores Driscoll or the bus company, had to have made a wrong choice along the way.
The Sweet Hereafter explores the aftermath of tragedy, which is exactly why luck is a recurring motif. As the characters recover from the emotional pain of the accident, they search for any trace of luck in their lives, even if their only luck is life itself. Rediscovering their luck allows them to rediscover their lives. The “sweet hereafter” of the accident is the period of time in which they heal from the unlucky trauma and rediscover the simple luck found in simply being alive, because sometimes that is the only hope.