CLOSE READING: RUSSELL BANKS
I developed my class on writing place around the opening chapter of Russell Banks’ novel, THE SWEET HEREAFTER. The novel is a master class on how to create a sense of place in all its complexity, narrated by a character you won’t soon forget—Dolores Driscoll, a school bus driver in a small, rural community.
In my previous posts, I shared some key concepts and writing exercises to help you refine sense of place in your own writing:
- Kinesthetic sense: https://www.tanyakwhiton.com/craft-notes-writing-place-part-1/
- Using loci & juxtaposition: https://www.tanyakwhiton.com/craft-notes-writing-place-part-2/
- Developing sense of place through character: https://www.tanyakwhiton.com/craft-notes-writing-place-part-3/
I urge you to review these earlier posts and exercises, as they will help frame your analysis of Banks’ opening chapter. Buy yourself a copy of THE SWEET HEREAFTER. Take notes. Dig in. Good writers READ! And reading analytically will help you revise your own work.
QUESTION: Consider the way Russell Banks uses the kinesthetic sense in the opening chapter of THE SWEET HEREAFTER. Be as specific and concrete as possible.
EXAMPLE: When Dolores jerks the wheel of the bus, thinking she saw a dog in the road.
QUESTION: Consider the ways Russell Banks uses loci. The chapter is so densely written, with so many potent images. Which loci seem most important?
EXAMPLE: The old town sandpit.
QUESTION: How does Russell Banks use setting to develop Dolores Driscoll’s character? What do we know about how Dolores sees herself, her environment, and the other people in it?
EXAMPLE: She sees herself as a practical, down-to-earth person, one who errs on the side of the angels.
QUESTION: How does Banks use setting to develop the OTHER characters in the story? What do we learn about them based on where they live in the community?
EXAMPLE: We learn their socio-economic status based on where (and how) they live
BONUS QUESTION: To take things a little further still: how does Banks use setting to give us a sense of the cultural and regional identity of this fictional town in upstate New York?
The way Banks establishes the structure of this chapter is deceptively simple: Dolores, as the town’s bus driver, takes us on a tour of the entire town, its inhabitants, their histories, and the landscape.
For a deeper look at how he accomplishes this, I invite you to go back through the chapter and highlight the transitions that keep the present action of the story moving forward, even as the narration moves in and out of the past.
Almost all of them make use of the setting, and of the bus itself, which is a sort of micro setting in the larger environment.