You know how everyone always says the book is better than the movie? Well, this is one of the rare cases where I feel like the movie is better than the book. Now, don't get me wrong. I love this book and Russell Banks is one of my all-time favourite authors, but there are layers in the film that elevate it above the source material. Kind of the way Frank Darabont elevated Stephen King in both The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
Anyway... I re-read this book last week while I waited for the library to reopen after lockdown.
It's the story of a school bus accident in a small town in upstate New York and how the community is devastated by the loss of so many of its children. There are four different points of view telling the story - the driver of the bus, the father of two kids who were killed, the lawyer who is trying to get the townsfolk to band together for a law suit and one of the few survivors of the crash, a young girl now confined to a wheelchair.
These different perspectives highlight not just the varied views of the actual crash and what happened, but the way the townsfolk respond to it. The bus driver is a local woman, well liked and much admired. No one knows how to speak to her after the accident. Everyone knows that she was not really responsible for the crash, yet they can't look at her or speak to her, knowing that she is responsible for their grief.
The lawyer has his own reasons for so fiercely pursuing the case. His own daughter isn't dead, but is just as lost to him as any of the children who drowned in the frozen pond. He would never admit it, but fighting for justice for these kids makes him feel better about being unable to help his own child.
The father was driving behind the bus and watched it crash with his twins in the back. Recently widowed and struggling with a drinking problem that is just on the verge of becoming a real problem, he has been indulging in an illicit affair with a local woman who, with her husband, runs a struggling motel. Following the crash and the loss of their children, they discover how little they really have in common and their relationship fizzled out, leaving Billy with nothing but his grief and a bottle.
Nichole, one of the few children to survive the crash, comes home to a family and a hometown she no longer recognises. For years she has been harbouring a dirty secret about her father, a secret that festers within her. When she is asked to talk to the lawyers about what she saw he day of the accident, she realizes that, for the first time, she holds the power and uses it to hurt her father as gravely as he ever hurt her.
This is a beautiful and very sad story that asks some serious questions about what a community is, and what it should do when the very worst thing you can imagine happens. As I mentioned, I think the film (by Canadian/Armenian director Atom Egoyan) is better than the book - more layered, more beautiful - but the book does give more depth to a couple of the character points of view, especially Nichole's and Billy's.
I would certainly recommend this one, but more so, another of Bank's books that references this one, The Rule of the Bone. In that one, the characters wind up living in the wrecked bus that was pulled from the pond for a while...I love little things like that and often try to drop them into my own books.
But don't just listen to me. Here's the blurb:
When fourteen children from the small town of Sam Dent are lost in a tragic accident, its citizens are confronted with one of life’s most difficult and disturbing questions: When the worst happens, whom do you blame, and how do you cope? Masterfully written, it is a large-hearted novel that brings to life a cast of unforgettable small-town characters and illuminates the mysteries and realities of love as well as grief.