Signing The Sweet Hereafter

I went to the Brattleboro Literary Festival in Vermont with the intention of listening to author Russell Banks read. It was eight years ago, timed with the release of his novel The Darling.

Banks is the author of one of the favorite books in my collection, The Sweet Hereafter. And that’s the book I brought with me to Brattleboro although I own several others by him. 

The Sweet Hereafter is a grim book about a school bus accident in which fourteen children die and how those living in a small town in Upstate New York respond. Banks was inspired by a similar accident in South Texas.

(As I write this blog, the newspapers and television stations continue to give us details about another tragedy of 20 young children and their educators murdered in a Connecticut school by a 20-year-old shooter, who killed his mother and himself. I don’t need to add my opinion except to express my deep sadness this ever happened.)

The Sweet Hereafter is told by four narrators: Dolores Driscoll, the woman who drove the bus and survived; Billy Ansel, who lost his two children in the accident; Mitchell Stephens, an ambulance-chasing lawyer; and Nichole Burnell, a teen who survives but can nolonger walk. Banks does an expert job capturing small-town life complete with its dark secrets.

That Saturday, Banks sat on a stage in an auditorium as he read from his new novel, The Darling. The main character is a woman, a ’60s radical who flees to Africa. He was a good reader. 

After he was done, Banks was immediately cornered by people clutching books for him to sign. I held the first edition of The Sweet Hereafter I bought for ten bucks as I joined them.

I waited patiently for my turn. One woman had a stack of paperbacks. I tried not to groan. Banks smiled and signed each dog-eared book without complaint.

I was next in line when an eager festival worker rushed down the auditorium’s aisle to inform Banks he was needed right away in the lobby to sign books. Well, there goes my chance, I thought. But then, Banks told the eager worker I would accompany him.

I followed Banks to the head of the line, where he crossed out his printed name on the title page of The Sweet Hereafter and signed below it. I told him how much I loved the book and thanked him for being so cordial. 


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