The Sweet Hereafter

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The Sweet Hereafter is a 1991 novel by American author Russell Banks. It is set in a small town in the aftermath of a deadly school bus accident that has killed most of the town's children.

The novel has been adapted into an award-winning 1997 film of the same name by Canadian director Atom Egoyan.


The Sweet Hereafter is a multiple first person narrative depicting life in a small town in Upstate New York in the wake of a terrible school bus accident in which numerous local children are killed. Hardly able to cope with the loss, their grieving parents are approached by a slick city lawyer who wants them to sue for damages. At first the parents are reluctant to do so, but eventually they are persuaded by the lawyer that filing a class action lawsuit would ease their minds and also be the right thing to do.

As most of the children are dead, the case now depends on the few surviving witnesses to say the right things in court. In particular, it is 14 year-old Nicole Burnell, who was sitting at the front of the bus and is now is unable to move from the waist down (but isn't paralysed)[clarification needed], whose deposition is all-important. However, she unexpectedly accuses Dolores Driscoll, the driver, of speeding and thus causing the accident. When she does so, all hopes of ever receiving money are thwarted. All the people involved know that Nicole is lying but cannot do anything about it. Only her father knows why, but he is unable to publicly reveal his daughter's motives.

The novel captures the atmosphere in a small town suddenly shaken by catastrophe. Fathers take to drinking, secret affairs are abruptly ended, whole families move away. Only the reader/viewer knows that Mitchell Stephens, the lawyer, is himself a troubled man who has effectively lost his own child—his estranged, drug-addicted daughter informs him over the phone that she has just tested HIV positive.

The book, written in 1991, was chosen in 1998 by Nancy Pearl, Director of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library, to be the first selection for "If All Seattle Read the Same Book", a program that has continued in the Seattle community and at many other public libraries around the country.

Factual basis

The novel was based on an actual bus crash in Alton, Texas.

At 7:30 A.M. on September 21, 1989, a Coca-Cola truck hit a Mission school bus, knocking it into a gravel pit at the corner of Five-Mile Road and Bryan Road. Twenty-one children from the Alton area were drowned, and 49[1] were injured. This was the worst school bus accident to date in Texas history.[2]

The National Transportation Safety Board found that the crash was the fault of truck driver Ruben Perez.

Some lawyers faced ethics charges in their rush to file suit after the accident.[3] Dozens of lawyers hurried to Alton, reportedly even approaching families in the morgue and in hospitals. The soft-drink truck was owned by Valley Coca-Cola, a division of the soft drink giant.[4] The bus manufacturer was sued on the grounds that the standard rear emergency door should have been supplemented with an exit on the left side of the bus which would have permitted most or all of the children to escape. The community of Alton was sued because the pit was not thoroughly barricaded.

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